“Isn’t this going a little overboard?” Kiminobu asked his Royal Guard as they watched him getting dressed in his tuxedo. “This is just a ceremony to get the peace ball rolling. This isn’t the actual wedding.”
“And if you meet your new bride and aren’t wearing your finest clothes, Your Highness, I will not allow you to get married,” Asa told him as she admired the way the suit fit him. “And I would hope your bride would appreciate that you put yourself through the effort of dressing up for her.”
“And if she doesn’t think you’re absolutely delicious after seeing you in this, then she needs to have her head examined,” Shiori told him.
“Shiori,” Asa warned gently.
“What? He is!”
“Beautiful packaging can’t hide the monster beneath,” Kiminobu said, tugging gently at his collar. “This is a little tight.”
“It’s supposed to be, Your Highness,” the tailor told him. “If you can breathe, it isn’t too tight.”
“Can you still loosen it a little bit?” he asked.
The tailor sighed. “Of course, Your Highness. Please take your jacket off, and we’ll find you a shirt with a slightly larger collar.”
Kiminobu went into the dressing room and took his shirt and jacket off behind a closed door. He came out a moment later wearing another, more comfortable shirt that was still long-sleeved and covered his body completely. The tailor went in to collect the old shirt and jacket.
“At least you aren’t wearing five shirts beneath like normal,” Rumiko noted. “You look much better without the padding.”
“I’m still getting a larger shirt for that,” he said.
“Your Highness, we’ve coddled your desire to hide your body, and we understand why you wish to do it,” Asa said carefully, “but you really need to stop. Your burns have healed enough that you don’t need to protect yourself anymore.”
“The doctors have told you as much… many times! Please, stop torturing yourself!” Rumiko pleaded with him.
“The additional clothes make you too hot,” Shiori said. “I saw you at the concert—you were sweating profusely because you had too many clothes on!”
“There were also a lot of people in that concert!” Kiminobu shot back, but he knew she was right. They were all right. He sighed and gripped his gloved fists again and again.
“We’re not asking you to wear short sleeves and take off your gloves, we’re just asking you to… let your body breathe,” Asa told him. She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Baby steps is all we want from you. Just give yourself this one small comfort.”
He lowered his head but nodded, a consent no one was expecting. “I guess it would make a tuxedo more comfortable to wear only one t-shirt beneath it,” he agreed. “Fine… I’ll… do it… for my family….” He looked at all of them.
All the royal guards except for Asa jumped into the air and cheered happily.
“What’s going on in here?” Queen Harukichi asked when she saw their joyous faces.
“I’m… I’m going to stop wearing so many clothes,” Kiminobu told her. “At least, underneath.”
“Still gloves, long sleeves and long pants, but… anything is progress, Your Majesty,” Asa told her.
Harukichi smiled at her son. “I’m happy for you,” she said. “I think Yumisa is already a good influence on you.”
“Either that, or he’s finally started to listen to his friends, Your Majesty,” Asa said.
“Perhaps, Captain Ikehara,” Harukichi said. “Though knowing my son, you shouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“Mom…” Kiminobu growled softly.
“Your Highness,” the tailor said, “if you are going to… go without the padding, it might be best to have you measured again. I know it’s uncomfortable for you, but it should be done for a proper fitting. I can take you into a private room where no one will see you but me, and I have fitted you before.”
Kiminobu sighed but nodded. “If you think it’s the best idea.”
“I do, Your Highness.”
“We’ll wait out here,” Asa told him.
“This way, Your Highness.” The tailor led Kiminobu away.
“He’s never going to get over the way he looks, is he?” Shiori asked no one in particular.
“You saw how he looked, Lieutenant, after his accident,” the Queen said. “He shouldn’t have survived such burns, but he did. Unfortunately, our medical technology wasn’t advanced enough to cure burns as bad as my son’s were, and now that it is… it’s too late. The doctor’s can’t do anything for him—short of burning him alive again and then giving him the new treatment.”
Everyone shivered at the thought of that.
“As you said, he barely survived it the first time,” Asa said. “He’d never survive again.”
Harukichi sat down in a chair despondently. She looked around before saying, “The Kareneth had a cure—something that could have helped my baby then—but we couldn’t trust them. If we just had, perhaps it would have ended this war sooner… perhaps it would have saved my son from nearly a decade of hating himself.”
“It could have been a trick, Your Majesty—you can’t blame yourself,” Rumiko told her. “We’ve done everything we could to help the Prince—short of what you would never allow.”
“And even that I would allow if it would just help him… somehow,” Harukichi moaned gently. “I just hate to see him in so much emotional pain! If his pain was physical, at least the doctor’s could help him with that. But the psychiatrists have done all they could.”
“We know,” Asa told her. “We’ve watched him for eight years. He’s just shut himself off to any possibility of being happy. But at least getting him to discard so many clothes that he’s using to hide himself is a small step.”
Harukichi smiled. “It is… and I have you and Princess Yumisa to thank for that. Maybe my son can finally heal now that he’s getting married.”
The Queen stood up and looked at Shiori, who was chewing on her upper lip thoughtfully. “Lieutenant, is there anything wrong?”
Shiori looked up, startled, unaware she had been so quiet. She smiled but said, “No, Your Majesty, I was just… thinking about ZOO—the rock band the Prince took me to see last night. There’s a rumor online that Princess Yumisa is actually one of the members of the band. I was just thinking it odd that ZOO returned the money for backstage passes for their last show to everyone but… your son and me.”
“What are you thinking?” Asa asked her.
Shiori shrugged. “Maybe… were they checking him out?” she asked. “No, it’s a stupid idea. Forget I mentioned it!”
“It makes sense,” Asa said. “While we’ve never seen their Princess, they know about the Prince’s condition… maybe they wanted to see how bad it was?”
“Maybe to see if their technology might still be able to help him?” Kii asked.
“How many members does this group have?” Harukichi asked.
“Five, plus their manager,” Shiori said.
“How old are they?” the Queen asked.
Shiori shrugged. “Everything about them is like a super-secret. I have no idea how old the band members or their manager is. There aren’t even pictures or videos of them without their full makeup on. If one of them is the Princess, I’d never be able to pick her out of a lineup. I’m sorry, Your Majesty, I shouldn’t have brought it up. As I said, it was a stupid idea.”
“No, Lieutenant, you were just thinking out loud, and there’s no law against that.” The Queen smiled at her.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Now Shiori saw her thinking. “May I ask what’s on your mind, Your Majesty?”
“When the marriage was decided, we asked if Princess Yumisa would be coming alone. Emperor Sunada said that the Princess has five handmaidens who are dearer to her than anyone. He said they would more than likely come with her. So, that would be six total—just like your band.”
“So… it’s possible one of them actually is the Princess,” Shiori said with wide eyes. “Excuse me, Your Majesty—I have to check something!” She left the tailor’s like a bolt of lightning and was gone before anyone could stop her. She came back a few minutes later to find Prince Kiminobu dressing again in front of a mirror. She almost didn’t recognize him.
“Wow, Your Highness, you look amazing,” she complimented him. “You do look so much better without the additional clothes!”
“I feel lighter, too,” he told her. “And not so hot.”
“The suit fits you very well now, Your Highness,” the tailor said. “How is the collar?”
“Still tight, but I’ll live,” Kiminobu said. “Where did you disappear to, Shiori?”
“I had a stupid thought about the gifts ZOO gave me last night, but… nothing panned out from it,” she said.
“You never did tell us what they gave you,” he said. “Was it as special as you had hoped?”
“More so than I could have ever hoped,” she told him. “They gave me a lot of first press albums, some figures of them that were so popular they sold out on the first day, and a few special trinkets and other items that I just adore. As promised, they even gave me a note that each of them signed, saying who gave me what.” She handed the note over to him.
“You’re letting me touch it?” he asked jokingly, carefully taking the note from her.
“Read it,” she said.
Dear Shiori, President of the Vadoran Veterinarian Society,
Thank you very much for coming to our final concert. We are very happy you and Prince Kiminobu can come, and we look forward to meeting you after the concert. In this case are a few trinkets and items most fans would love to get their hands on, but because of the war we’re sure you’ve never been able to. Each item was picked out by a member of the band, and a few by our Manager, Okami. We hope you enjoy adding them to your collection, or starting your own if you don’t have one yet.
Thank you for your loyalty, and we hope you enjoy our (hopefully not) final concert.
And we hope you enjoyed meeting us backstage.
Your friends forever,
Kitsune, Tora, Koara, Usagi, Panda, and Okami
He handed the note back to her. “That was nice of them,” he said, giving her the note back.
“What is the Veterinarian Society?” Queen Harukichi asked curiously.
“They call their fan base Vets, Your Majesty,” Shiori told her. “Because we take care of them and love them so much.”
“ZOO, Vets—I can see that,” the Queen said admirably. “But what does this note have to do with what we were discussing earlier?”
“Probably nothing,” Shiori said.
“Can I see that?” Rumiko asked. “If they went through the trouble of writing you a note, there might be something hidden in it—a clue they wanted you to find, perhaps?”
“Be careful,” Shiori said, probably a little too plaintively.
“Mizuko, you’re better at this stuff than I am.”
The two twins went off into a corner together.
“They won’t hurt your note,” Asa assured her.
“I know… it’s just… one of a kind. No one has ever gotten a personal note from the members of ZOO before that I know of. I want to get it framed and put on my bedside table. It is handwritten, after all—and signed by each of them!”
“How does that feel, Your Highness?” the tailor asked, drawing everyone’s attention back to why they were actually there.
“Much better,” Prince Kiminobu said, turning his head from side to side to see if the neck bothered him at all.
“I have a few adjustments to make, but it will be ready before your wedding tomorrow.”
“Let me have a look,” Queen Harukichi said. Her son turned toward her, and she smiled. “Yes, you definitely look better than you have in a long time,” she said. “Princess Yumisa should consider herself lucky to have you.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Kiminobu said, blushing slightly.
“Good choice taking off the extra clothes,” Asa told him. “Just don’t get scared and go back to them, promise?”
“I promise,” he said. “I guess Yumisa will have to get used to me if we’re going to make this marriage work. I just hope I don’t disgust her so much she runs away in fear.”
“If she does, we’ll go to war again,” Harukichi told him. “No one will ever insult my son.” She straightened his jacket. “Very nice.”
“You can get out of your tuxedo and into your regular clothes, Your Highness,” the tailor said.
Prince Kiminobu returned to the dressing room to change.
Rumiko and Mizuko came over to the others a few moments later. “Nothing looks out of place,”
Rumiko said. “Mizuko and I couldn’t find anything that might suggest a coded message or anything. Sorry, Shiori.”
“May I see the note?” Queen Harukichi asked. “I will be careful, Lieutenant Seno.” She looked the note over, and a sly smile crossed her face when she finished reading it. “Very interesting,” she said, giving the note back to Shiori. “You are right, Lieutenant—the Princess is a member of the group.”
“She is?” Shiori asked with wide eyes. “Who? Which one?”
“I am afraid I cannot tell you that, for I believe they wish to keep it a secret to test my son,” the Queen said.
“Test him?” Asa asked darkly.
“Nothing you need to worry about, Captain. I found a small royal cipher encrypted in the message that none of you would know about. They don’t mean any harm, but our Princess has a secret that they want to know if Kiminobu can accept or not. You said they were all pretty?” Harukichi asked Shiori.
“Drop dead pretty,” Shiori answered, unable to hide the jealousy in her voice.
Harukichi pressed her lips into a thin line and nodded. “They must have their reasons—we’ll play along, unless my son’s life seems to be in danger.”
“And that’s what we’re here for,” Asa assured her.
Captain Dietang Arnea sat perfectly still in the waiting room while waiting for his commanding officer to finish a meeting. When asked if he wanted anything, he always gave a terse but polite “No, thank you.” A meeting with a higher up after a failed mission was one thing. A meeting with a four-star General after a failed mission was something completely different.
The door to the General’s office opened, and Dietang stood up, and his face drained of color when he saw his Colonel come out of the office. Their eyes met briefly, but the Colonel said nothing. He just left the office without a word.
“General Caune will see you now,” the secretary told him.
Dietang straightened his shoulders and turned his back into a steel rod. He was not going to show weakness. He had done nothing wrong. He marched into the General’s office.
“Close the door,” the General instructed him. Arnea did as told and then came to stand before the desk. The General smirked when he saw how stiff Arnea was. “Calm down, Captain—you’re not being dismissed from the military,” the General said. “You failed your mission, yes, but you lost very few people and you came back with the command carrier intact. The damages are minimal for something that could have gained us a great prize.”
“The Nexus Suits were faster than we were expecting,” Arnea told him. “Especially the one carrying the Prince.”
“We did get a lot of good data from the fight, so that’s something.”
“Why am I here, General, Sir?” Arnea asked.
“I am assigning you to a VIPER squadron, Captain. You will keep your rank, but you will no longer command a carrier.”
“A VIPER squadron, sir?” Arnea asked.
“You are an experienced mech pilot, are you not?” General Caune asked.
“Of course, Sir.”
“Have you heard of the Solid Hammer Project?”
“Rumors, mostly,” Arnea said. “It’s supposed to be mobile suits powerful enough to take on the Nexus Suits, but everyone in Command says nothing can take those Nexus Suits on. They move too fast, are too powerful to be man-made.”
“Not man-made?” General Caune asked. “Then where were they made?”
“That I don’t know, Sir, but… their agility is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Most Vadoran mobile suits are bulky, meant to handle our world’s gravity. The Nexus Suits… it’s almost as if they were made for space battles, only how could they be? We’ve never been able to travel off-world because of the constant wars. While our military technology and medical technology has grown by leaps and bounds, we’ve never been able to think about traveling beyond our planet because we don’t know when we’re going to be attacked again. But those suits… they can’t have been made by man!”
“Then again, who made them?” the General asked.
“What do you know?” Arnea asked him suddenly. He realized the General was not asking him for his opinion. The General was trying to tell him something.
“We have information, Captain, but it’s only for above Alpha Clearance.”
“There’s nothing above Alpha Clearance,” Arnea said.
“There is… and if I give you that clearance, whatever you learn has to be kept quiet from everyone—you cannot discuss it at all, even with other people of the same clearance.”
“Not even you?”
“Not even me. The information is processed in a central location, and you can read it there, but there it stays.”
“Why are you trusting me with this?” Arnea asked.
“Because you’ll need to know what you’re piloting,” Caune said.
“Do the soldiers in my squadron have that clearance?”
“They know enough, but you cannot discuss what you learn with them. Is this perfectly understood? You cannot tell anyone.”
Arnea took a step back. “I don’t know if I can handle that kind of secrecy,” he said. “It’s not good for a military to have those kinds of secrets.”
“If you don’t want to know, I won’t force you,” Caune told him. “It will not affect your rank or your new assignment in any way. You’ll just be at a slight disadvantage when you go after the Prince and the Princess in the new REAVERS during their ceremony.”
“Ceremony? I thought the wedding wasn’t for another three months?”
“They’re holding an unofficial ceremony tomorrow to marry them so the Princess can get pregnant before the main wedding. They hope the sooner she gets pregnant, the sooner the new nation can be created with the new Guardians in control. We have to stop that. The REAVERS have been built for that reason. They can break through the Vadoran Wall like it was nothing. Your mission will be to break in, destroy the Vadoran Nexus Suits, and capture the Prince and Princess. After that, the Uprising can make it’s demands.”
“Are we going to kill them?”
General Caune shrugged. “Eventually, but only after we’ve brought Kareneth and Vadora to its knees.”
“Then I guess there’s only one thing I can do—I need to go meet my squadron and see how these REAVERS work.”
“What about your above Alpha Clearance?” Caune asked.
“I don’t trust myself with that kind of knowledge,” Dietang admitted. “But if I don’t need it, then why burden myself?”
“Good philosophy. Good look, Captain.”
Dietang Arnea saluted the General and turned to leave.