Fandom: Magic Knight Rayearth
Publish Date: 5/2/2004 through 12/24/2005
Disclaimer: I do not own Magic Knight Rayearth... *roasts Mokona to make s'mores*
Tama continued to protest, but her weak disclaimers were falling on deaf ears. Umi would have none of it, insisting that if she was going to be stuck here, she was going to do it on her terms. Besides, things like this always helped to relax her. It gave her something to focus her attention on, diverting it away from the situation at hand. Given that she couldn’t do very much about her situation at the present moment, it was a welcome distraction.
And so it was with no small amount of glee that Umi all but ordered her panicked maid-servant into one of the dresses that hung in the wardrobe. It was a pale yellow, with a daring bodice covered in detailed beadwork, and a very full skirt. Umi knew full well that it was one color she would never be able to wear (and look good in), but her trained eye had seen the potential for the look on Tama. And so she had joyously set about making over her maid.
Finally, the serving girl acquiesed, and slipped behind the dressing screen to change, as per her instructions. There was a rustling sound as fabric moved against fabric and flesh, but finally, she emerged, pretty face flushed crimson with embarassment, and one hand reached behind her back to grasp at some ties that she couldn’t quite get tied by herself.
Umi reached over and took care of the ties—simple silk cords that criss-crossed up the upper part of her back. Then she stepped back, too a good look—and clapped her hands in utter delight. “I knew that color would look fabulous on you! I just knew it! And now,” her eyes narrowed, taking on an almost sinister look to them, “the hair, the make-up, maybe some jewelry…”
Tama’s expression went from mildly humiliated to horrified. “Oh, no! I couldn’t!”
The Magic Knight raised a hand, silencing the protests. “If there is any sin in this, it’s on my head. I ordered you into it, you’re just doing what I told you. Okay? Okay! Now have a seat!” She pointed to the small stool standing beside the vanity table. Tama obeyed meekly, and Umi took a stance behind her. “I’m going to let your hair down, okay?”
A nod was her only response, and she went to work.
There were surprisingly few pins holding the amazingly complex braided style in place. Her hair had been braided into five braids, and they had all been woven together into a tight bundle on the back of her head. Once those few pins were pulled out, the brads tumbled free, and in short order her dark brown locks were free from the confining twists; it was wavy from the tight braids.
Umi was openly amazed at the girl’s hair. It was nearly as long as her own! Tama must have noticed Umi’s expression in the mirror, because she blushed and said softly, “It’s my one vanity, milady. Ev’ry girl should have one.”
“I agree, one hundred percent. And you have beautiful hair,” Umi selected a brush. “Let’s see what we can do with it!” And she set to work, brushing, separating, bending the long strands to her will.
She was thankful that her hands were occupied with something that was, for her, so mundane. How many times had she arranged Kagura’s rebellious locks into something fit for royalty? They were both the children of wealthier parents, so black-tie events and the preparations required for such things were no stranger to them. Hikaru, Fuu—both of them had fallen prey at some point or another to her styling urges. She barely needed to think about it anymore, which gave her mind free reign to wander where it would.
She was imprisoned in a palatial suite by a man who was so incredibly beautiful…and yet so slimy, so despicable. Just thinking about the small advances he had made in the two minutes she had spent in his company made her cringe and shiver. Xander—their enemy, and her captor. And, as it would seem, her dining companion for the evening’s meal. Not an ideal situation by any means.
But maybe…Umi’s mind was racing as she chose an ornamented hairpin and wove it into the black-brown strands. Maybe if she played her cards right and asked the right questions tonight, she could get some answers. That was her plan. But first, she was going to have a little fun.
Before she’d even realized it, there was no hair left in her hands; it had all been styled up into a simple, but complex-looking arrangement. She immediately spun Tama around and set to work on the poor girl’s face. And Tama flushed at the attention. “Milady—Umi,” she corrected herself hurriedly. “Why are you wasting your time on me? I’m naught but a maid…” She looked a little miserable.
“Because I’m tense, I need to relax, and you look great,” Umi’s reply was terse, and the maid fell silent, giving up and giving in, letting the woman she had been assigned to work her magic. And by the time she was finished, Tama looked no less than royal, and Umi was far more calm about her situation. She tended to be fairly spastic by nature, but she had learned the value of cooling down before entering a potentially dangerous situation.
Tama stared in awe at her reflection. “Is that…is that me?” she whispered. One hand slowly moved up to touch her newly-styled hair; the gesture was almost nervous, as though she was afraid that if she even looked at it wrong it would all come tumbling down.
“Yup, that’s you! And looking good, if I do say so myself!” Umi nodded, pleased.
For a long moment, Tama seemed engaged with her reflection. But the serenity of the moment was shattered when the maid suddenly looked at the window, and her blue eyes widened in terror. “Ye gods, it’s so late!” She rounded on Umi, desperation stamping onto her face. “It’s almost time, and you’re not ready!” The desperation gave way to terror at what would befall her.
She was silenced by Umi’s hand on her shoulder. “I don’t want anything to happen to you for my sake. So let’s find something for me to wear, shall we?” The look on Tama’s face at that moment was one of sheer adoration, and she followed Umi back to the open wardrobe like a puppy dog.
In minutes, Umi had discarded one monochromatic ensemble for another. She shed the head-to-toe black she had been wearing for the night on the town that wasn’t, and emerged in a floor length ensemble; she couldn’t quite name that shade of blue, it was somewhere between navy and cerulean. It hugged all the right places, revealed just enough to be flattering and alluring without sacrificing modesty, and swept the ground around her. There had been a pair of white elbow-length gloves on a table in there, and they nicely completed the ensemble.
She wondered vaguely what her Cephirean friends would have thought, had they been able to see her. Caldina probably would have done someone bodily injury out of joy alone.
Tama, meanwhile, had used the few moments while Umi had been changing to change out of the yellow gown and back into her charcoal-gray shift and apron. But though she removed the more elaborate hair ornaments, she left the style in, held by a few plain pins.
And Umi again proved herself; Tama barely had to do anything. The Blue Knight had herself looking party-worthy in almost no time at all. It wasn’t elaborate, but it was flattering and beautiful. She left her hair down, for the most part—not much else she could do with it, really, given the length. But she did clip a few sections away from her face with two clips bearing something that looked suspiciously like sapphire. She took a look, and nodded, satisfied with her reflection.
“I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” she murmured. But better suffer for an hour or so then let something befall an innocent, she decided. A far cry from the child who had first fallen into Cephiro seven years ago, she mused. That Umi probably wouldn’t have thought too much beyond ‘I don’t want to go.’
And just as she straightened, there was a knock on the door. She nodded at Tama, and the maid immediately leapt to answer the summons. And Umi was only mildly surprised to see Aeric standing there. Did he ever shed the armor, she wondered vaguely.
His eyes passed directly over Tama, apparently regarding her as unimportant, and scanned Umi up and down. That far-too-charming smile crossed his face. “A vision, Lady Umi, truly. The stars themselves cannot possibly compare.”
He was waxing poetic, and it made her want to gag. He was one of them; he was the one who had captured her and brought her here in the first place. And she was fairly certain that he was the one who had left her at the mercy of those men in the dungeon who had beaten her to the point of unconsciousness, and probably would have done more if given the chance. She had a sneaking suspicion, given his earlier explanation, that he had most likely come back down to the dungeon and happened upon the assault; if she was harmed, she guessed it was his own neck on the line. Naturally, he would step in to protect that.
Umi decided that she would control the only thing here she really could—herself. She made a quick decision and opted for the civil approach. Polite, but by no means friendly. Her eyes, ears, and instincts would be open to even the slightest nuance of a hint, a clue, anything.
And she was desperately curious to know why her unknown protector had said that her captors would not kill her. She assumed that they would keep her alive as a hostage. But if that’s all there was to it, then why keep her in such luxury? It was almost as if he was trying to convince her to stay without coming right out and saying as much. Or charm something out of her.
Aeric extended an arm to her. She ignored it for a moment and turned to Tama. “I would appreciate it if you would wait here for me. I might need some help when I get back.” Truthfully, she just didn’t want to be alone in this place, and she sincerely hoped the maid would understand that.
Thankfully, Tama nodded, and bobbed in a curtsy. “Of course, milady.” Under Aeric’s watchful eyes, it was once again back to the utmost formalities. “I’ll just tidy up a bit.”
“Wonderful,” Umi smiled, then turned back to the general. He was waiting with something that barely bore a resemblance to patience. “If it’s time…” She took the proffered arm and was whisked out of the room, down a staircase, towards her doom.
“Why pay so much attention to a servant?” he sniffed at one point along the way.
She knew he was referring to her exchange with Tama, and she came back immediately with, “Why not? She was sent to me. Does that mean I can’t talk to her?” She raised an eyebrow. “You call him your lord. Doesn’t that make you a servant as well?”
Strangely, he did not retort to that as they swept into an enormous hall with a table in the middle that seemed to be miles long. It looked like something out of a movie, where the royal family would dine, one person at each end of the table. And standing beside the table was her captor and host, Xander.
He turned as she entered, and an incredibly genuine smile came to the handsome face. “Welcome, Lady Umi. I’m so pleased you could join me.” His eyes drifted up and down over her form, and she was inordinately proud that she did not shudder under that frightening gaze. “And my goodness, what a change! Far most suitable than what you were brought here in.”
Umi said nothing, and managed not to flinch in disgust when he took one of her hands and kissed it. She didn’t miss the sly little look he gave her, either. She just wanted to get this over with and retreat back to Tama’s company. The maid was far more agreeable, and lacked that charming façade. She was genuine; this man was not.
She took a seat at one end of the table at his direction, and watched cooly as he took his own seat—at the other end of the absurdly-long table. Umi’s eyes darted around, looking for signs of anything amiss. The ever-present Guards were there, but otherwise, there was nothing to hint at any sort of threat.
A man-servant clad in gray set a plate down in front of her beside a goblet that was filled with something dark red. She glanced at the liquid distastefully, then decided that it looked far too much like blood for her to stomach. The food appeared normal enough, but she was too tense to eat; her stomach was twisted into knots and merrily doing backflips. She picked at the food, not really eating.
Most of all, she waited. And finally, her patience was rewarded.
He was on the other end of the long hall. Yet when he spoke to her, the words were crystal clear, as though he was sitting right beside her. “You look lovely, my dear.” She bit her tongue to keep from retorting that she wasn’t his dear, but merely sat silently as he continued, “I assume the accomodations are up to your standards?”
This was a direct question, and so she replied truthfully, “It’s lovely.”
“Perhaps I shall stop by, see if they are appropriate.”
“I think not,” she said quickly, reading his real meaning instantly.
“You wound me, my dear,” he said, his voice purest silk.
Umi was quite happy to let silence descend for a long time after that. The same servant came again and whisked her plate away. She had eaten almost nothing. Finally, she summoned her nerve, and spoke, “I want to look around.”
Even across the considerable distance between them, she could see his surprise that she would demand anything of him. “Pardon?”
Not given, she thought wryly, but instead said, “You seem to think I’m going to be here for quite some time. If that’s the case, I want to be able to look around. If I just hang around in that room all the time, I will probably go mad.”
Xander seemed to contemplate this, then nodded. “Very well. Tell Aeric to leave your door unlocked. But be warned, my angel,” his voice took on a hardened undertone, “remember that some doors are not meant to be opened.”
“Of course,” she said with honeyed sweetness.
Another bout of silence.
This time, he broke it. “So how are things in Cephiro? It’s usually quite lovely around this time of the year, if I remember correctly…”
Something about the way he said it set off an alert. “You’ve been to Cephiro?”
“Been there?” he chuckled. “Dear-heart, I was born there. I lived there for quite some time.” His tone at the end made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. There was no love lost between him and the country she had vowed to protect. She was certain of that now.
She rose suddenly. “It’s been delightful, but I think I would like to begin my exploration now. So I bid you good evening.” She stepped away from the table and made a beeline for the door as fast as possible without outright running.
“Umi,” he called after her, and she stopped in the doorway; she turned to look at him, not even bothering to hide her contempt anymore. He pretended not to notice it, though. “You will be mine.”
She quirked a brow and tilted her chin up a little. “We’ll see.” And she turned her back on him and swept from the room before he could see that she was shaking. Aeric was waiting, and he said nothing, but escorted her back to her suite.
“Your lord has given me the freedom to wander the place,” she informed the guard upon reaching her door. “It seems I’ll be here for a while, so I’d like to look around a little. Leave the door unlocked.”
He smirked, and she had the sudden suspicion that he knew something no one else did. But he bowed. “If you are lost, speak to a Guard, and he will direct you. Should you require anything not immediately available, ring that bell, and someone will bring you whatever you need.” With that, he whisked himself out of her room, leaving the door not only unlocked, but partially ajar, like an invitation to go play explorer.
Umi didn’t even hear Tama ask if she was all right; she ran across the room and slammed the door shut. She spun around and pressed her back against it, trembling violently. Her heart was tapping out a frantic jangle in her chest, and she tried to will it to slow its rhythm.
“Milady?” Tama asked again. She crossed the room. “Umi?”
Suddenly, she was unable to breathe, and she reached up and clawed at the sapphire choker adorning her throat. “Get this off…get it off!” The maid fumbled with the clasp, but in seconds the silver and jeweled ornament tumbled to the ground. Umi forced gasps of air into her lungs.
She was terrified. She couldn’t remember ever being this frightened in her life. She was locked away in the enemy’s stronghold for the second time, but this was different. When she had been imprisoned by the Chizetan princesses Tarta and Tatra, she had known their base motive. And she had been in full view of the crystalline palace of Cephiro. Here, she had none of those simple comforts. She didn’t know where she was, and she didn’t know her captor’s motive. All she knew was that he wished harm on Cephiro.
And that made him her enemy.
But at the moment he held the cards, at least where she specifically was concerned. That was part of her motivation in demanding that she be allowed to wander the palace. She needed to get her bearings, to figure out some sort of action. But most of all, there was one certain thing she wanted to be able to search for within these walls.
She had been wearing the glove when she was captured, and her sword had been inside it. When she had awakened in the bowels of the dungeons, it had been gone, and she knew they had taken it. If she could get ahold of that again, she could defend herself to a certain degree, by magic or by the sword.
Furthermore, if she had her sword, she could summon her mashin. Selece had already contacted her once, so chances were he could pull her from here—wherever ‘here’ was, exactly.
She stood up and pulled her gloves off as she reached desperately with her mind, looking for that strange blue aura that was usually blinding to her. Under normal circumstances, it was like a searchlight in her mind’s eye. But now, it was a candle; she could barely find it. But find it, she did.
“Selece?” she whispered.
She could have wept with relief when the deep voice echoed into her thoughts. “Umi.”
“Can you get me out of here?” she asked, ignoring the fact that Tama was staring at her as though she had lost her mind entirely. “Under the right circumstances, could you?” She prayed he would understand what she meant. It was risky enough that she was speaking to him like this; best not to come right out and say it, but hope that he would know somehow.
And he did. “Recover thy sword, and call out my name. I shall come to thee.”
“Awesome,” she whispered.
“Yes, I am.”
After getting over her initial shock, she actually rolled her eyes. “Okay, since when do you have a sense of humor?”
“Everyone needs a hobby. At least, that’s what Windam said Fuu said once…”
Umi shook her head; a thought occurred to her then, and she spoke again. “Selece, could you bring another person? If I have them with me, could you carry another person out of here?”
“Hold that person’s hand when you summon me, and I shall take them as well.”
“You’re a prince!”
“This surprises you?”
“I’ll talk to you soon, I hope,” Umi nodded, ignoring the jibe. She was liking her mashin partner more and more with each passing conversation they shared. But the link between them broke off, and she suddenly felt exhausted. But the mild lightheadedness passed quickly, and she darted back into the changing room, already starting to peel off the evening gown before she had even passed through the door.
“Milady Umi?” Tama followed. She looked and sounded bewildered. “What’s happening?”
“I’m changing into something reasonable,” Umi said from behind the changing screen; the gorgeous blue dress suddenly acquired powers of flight and soared over the screen, nearly landing right on Tama’s head. “And then we’re going exploring. I’ll need your help.” Her head poked out, and she didn’t look terribly happy. “Where are my other clothes?”
“Oh…here!” Tama rushed to the bed, where an outfit was already laid out, thought it was not the clothing she had been wearing upon her arrival. She gathered it up and handed it to Umi. “This is what milord instructed. I dared not refuse…”
Umi stepped out a minute later, fury written on her pretty features. “Unbelievable.” This was the sort of ensemble that would have been far more at home on Caldina or someone else from Chizeta, a country famous for its flimsy clothing. Had this been made on Earth, Umi would have angrily sworn that the tag with laundering instructions was the biggest piece of fabric on the thing. It was, again, a beautiful shade of blue—but it left so very little to the imagination, and that would simply not do.
Stalking across the room, Umi rang the appointed bell, and jumped when an unfamiliar voice echoed into the room. “Yes, Lady Magic Knight?”
She nearly groaned at the use of that damn honorific again, but simply barked. “Where are the clothes I wore when I was brought here? I want them back immediately, if not sooner.”
There was a pause, then the voice replied, “Yes, milady.” And there was an odd sound, like a speaker being turned off. Umi was a little unnerved. Did such things as speakers exist here?
In the meantime, she picked up the discarded dress and wrapped it somewhat awkwardly around herself in an attempt to preserve modesty. “So you said Xander ordered this?” At Tama’s meek nod, she bit back a curse. “Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me. Does that man have no shame?” She stopped herself there. It wasn’t Tama’s fault; the poor girl was as much caught up in this as Umi was.
“Umi, if I may ask, who were you speaking to earlier?” Tama asked after a moment. “It looked like you were talking to thin air.”
To her surprise, the Blue Knight smiled. “I was talking with a friend.” A knock at the door signalled another maid—this one far older than Tama, but wearing the same gray, nondescript dress—bearing Umi’s clothing, cleaned and folded. Tama took them and passed them to Umi, who conducted a thorough examination both with her eyes and her heightened magical sense, looking for anything suspicious. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, she ducked back behind the screen and changed quickly; when she emerged again, she seemed far calmer and much more confident for her wardrobe.
“Okay, Tama,” the Magic Knight tossed the skimpy blue outfit on a chair without any regard for wrinkles or the like, “let’s go explore a little.” She then half-dragged the poor maid out the door with her.
The palace was as huge as she had thought upon her first impression. It seemed a maze! She rapidly discovered that she had every reason to be grateful she had brought Tama along. The girl might only have been there for a month, but she seemed to have a very good grip on where she was going.
After a while, an idea hit Umi, and she couldn’t believe she hadn’t had the common sense to think of it sooner. She whirled. “Tama, if Xander were to claim something from an enemy, where would he keep it? I mean, like a trophy?” He seemed like the kind of man who would cheerfully display all and any spoils of his conquests. It was a matter of pride.
The maid mulled over this for a moment before answering, “There is a trophy room, I know of. I know where it is. But I can’t go in. Milord’s orders.”
“But you know where it is?” Umi asked, jumping on the tidbit like a rat on a Cheeto. When Tama nodded, she grinned. “That’s good enough for me. Would you show me?” She let herself be led.
“Umi,” Tama asked softly as they were in an empty hallway, “may I ask a question now?”
“Go ahead. I might even answer it.”
“Why are you suddenly so interested in looking around? And why the trophy room?”
Umi stopped and turned, then leaned in and whispered as softly as she could, “Because I’m not going to spend any more time in this place then I absolutely have to. Tonight, Tama. We’re breaking out. And what I need to do it is probably in that room.”
With a click, the door closed.
Kagura leaned her forehead against it and sighed. “So what do you think?”
Takeshi had unceremoniously dropped into a chair and was leaning back in it, stairing up at the ceiling. “It sounds really risky to me. I mean, if she’s caught…then what? What happens to her?” They had been walking around aimlessly, meandering through the halls of the palace without any real destination. They were nearly sick with worry, but finally they opted to retire to a room and try to calm down.
“But Selece said they won’t kill her,” Kagura pointed out.
“There are worse things than death,” Takeshi replied almost automatically. He sighed and rocked forward, putting his head in his hands. “Dammit…why is this happening? I mean, I’m barely getting the idea that they actually killed somebody, and the idea that all the people here are normal. And now I’m supposed to somehow wrap my brain around the idea that this has happened? No way…no way in hell…”
She frowned and finally turned away from the door, instead leaning her back against it. “I don’t like it either, but…” She paused. “Umi never asked for any of this to happen to her. Neither did Hikaru or Fuu, for that matter. But the point is that it did, and you know Umi. She doesn’t do things halfway.”
Comprehension dawned. “You know what I think, ’Keshi,” she began, using an old nickname, “I don’t think it’s the whole Magic Knight thing that’s bothering you as much as the fact that you’re having trouble accepting the fact that you can’t help her.” In spite of the situation, a sad smile touched Kagura’s face. “You’ve always looked out for me and Umi. But now she’s gotten in a little over her head, you can’t do anything for her at this point, and you hate the fact that you’re helpless.”
By the time she finished, he was looking at her with wide, respectful eyes. Every once in a while, Kagura would suddenly pull out a wisdom older than she was and floor him with indisputable logic.
She tilted her head to the side. “I feel the same way. But we have to just trust that Umi can take care of herself, and leave things to the others. If Hikaru and Fuu can do anything, they’ll jump at it. And the little wizard guy, and everyone else. They might be able to help her. We can’t. All we can do is wait.”
He stared at her, and nodded.
Kagura looked like she would have said something else, but a banging on the door. She jumped, spun around, and opened it again. “What’s up?”
Presea was there, panting from exhertion. “I think something’s happening.”
That was all she had to say, and the three were off and running.
Even whispered, the words seemed quite loud because they echoed in the vacant corridors and darkened stairways of the palace. Or, as Umi would call it at that moment—perfection.
She led a very frightened Tama out into the shadows of the hallway, gently closing the door to her room behind her. Her absence would be discovered soon enough, she figured.
Truth be told, Umi almost felt a little guilty about pulling Tama into this, but the sad fact was that she needed help if she was to get out of here in one piece, and the eighteen-year-old maid was the only one she had found here that she trusted. Furthermore, Tama had already proven that she was willing to follow ‘her lady’ in whatever venues were required of her.
But there was even a little more to it than that. Umi had felt a strange connection to this girl since the moment she had laid eyes on her. She was’t sure about it at first, but eventually she wrote it off as perhaps a kindred spirit. They were both trapped in this horrible place, and both had reason to possibly fear for their lives. Hadn’t Tama even said, upon their initial meeting, that she tried to stay out of sight as much as possible? They were in the same boat, and that was probably where the bond came from.
“Can you lead the way?” she whispered to the shadow that was Tama.
Beside her, the silhouette nodded, and Umi felt a sudden chill that couldn’t be written off to temperature; the hallway was surprisingly warm. She brushed it off, citing nerves, and followed Tama closely through the halls.
Twice they had to stop and hide from passing Guards. But no one spotted them.
As they walked, Umi repeatedly tested the weight of the iron fire poker in her hand. It was the closest thing to a sword she had been able to find in her rooms. It was thicker and heavier than one of her fencing rapiers, but the length was almost right (the poker was perhaps an inch or so shorter), and she figured that could be accomodated for with relative ease. Even holding the long iron rod gave her confidence. As long as she remained alert, she could defend herself, and that was empowering.
It seemed like ages had passed and they were still walking, but finally, Tama’s shadow stopped—and Umi nearly bumped right into her. “Here, this is it,” Tama hissed, pointing to the door. Umi tried the handle, and was only mildly surprised to find it locked. Fortunately, she had come prepared for that as well.
One hand reached into her hair and withdrew a silver hair clip. She had dug through the jewelry box to find something unornamented, and had been lucky enough to find this pair. They were perfect for what she was about to attempt.
She knelt down beside the door and felt for the keyhole. Finally, her fingers found the indentation, and she began wiggling the hairclip around in the opening, listening carefully for the sign that the door was open. It felt like eternites, but finally she heard that telltale click. She tugged on the handle, and the door opened soundlessly.
“Gotcha,” Umi murmured, restraining the urge to do a victory dance. Instead she ushered Tama inside, then stepped into the room herself and closed the door. There was already dim lighting in the room, though there was no source visible, and Umi took a good look around.
The room was full of…well, artifacts was the best word she could come up with on short notice. There were items so old they were falling apart, and things that looked brand new, each surrounded by a strange yellow glow. She could only guess how many eras worth of history were represented by the objects in this one room. But that also made her wonder how he had managed to acquire so many of them, and she shivered involuntarily.
But it didn’t take her long to spot the object of her own search: her gem-glove. It was sitting on a pedestal near the center of the room; like all of the other items, it was engulfed in that strange golden glow. Unsure, Umi decided to just see what happened, and reached for it.
It was then that she discovered what the glow was: a protective barrier. It felt like she had been struck by lightning, and the force of it threw her across the room. She landed near the wall, huddled on the floor, trying to force air back into her lungs. It hurt worse than anything she had ever encountered before.
“Umi!” Tama yelped as loudly as she dared, rushing to her lady’s side. “Are you all right?”
After a minute, Umi managed to get to her feet. “I think I hurt my pride more than my ass,” she muttered with a touch of bitterness. “But how do I get through this? I need that glove.” She bit her lip in vexation. Would it take magic to get through? But if that was the case, she was in big trouble because her magic was inside that glove. She twisted her hands around the fire poker as she pondered it.
Unsure of what to do, she sighed and stepped back. “Okay, let’s think. There’s gotta be a way…” She turned to Tama. “We’re going to get out of here, though. I promise. With or without that glove.”
“I think not.”
Umi whirled at the male voice.
And the fire poker was flung from her hand before she had a chance to even think of self-defense. But the sound of iron striking stone was enough to spur her into action, and she jumped backwards, out of the reach of Aeric’s sword or fist. She glared angrily at him, positioning herself between him and Tama.
“I must warn you that I will disable you in whatever manner necessary,” Aeric said with a calm ferocity. “And your friend there will be dealt with as well.” He glanced over at Tama, still cowering in the shadows of a corner.
Umi’s blood boiled. “I dragged her along. She has nothing to do with this, so leave her alone!”
“Traitors must be punished,” he sneered. “Now cease this foolishness, and come along quietly.”
“In your dreams!” Umi spat.
His smirk grew wider, and she had the suspicion he had been hoping she would say something to that effect. Without another word, he raised his sword and lunged. Umi dodged, somersaulting out of the way. An idea was forming rapidly in her mind. If she could just get close enough to make it work…
She plotted her next moves very carefully, trying to end up in specific locations around the room. Finally, she was right where she wanted to be. And he was right where she wanted him to be. He stalked towards her, sword raised. Suddenly, she wasn’t quite sure about his promise not to kill her. He looked downright maniacal at that moment.
Umi waited, waited…she had to time this…
As the blade whistled through the air, she dodged to the side at the last possible moment; it was so close that she actually lost a few strands of hair. But as she tumbled to the side, she saw that her plan had worked better than she had hoped.
The blade of Aeric’s sword cut through the empty air where she had been standing—and sliced into the strange magical field surrounding her glove-gem. Instantly, there was that same blue light as when she had touched it—but it was far more intense, and she heard Aeric’s shout of pain before he was thrown across the room; he hit the wall with a loud thud and slid to the wall. His sword clattered to the ground beside the protective case.
And the barrier of magic disappeared.
Umi stood up and walked over. “I guessed right. It was a magic sword.” She sighed. “Is there anything in this world that’s not magic?” Gingerly, she reached out and plucked her glove from the case. Nothing blocked her, nor did anything harm her. She knew she was grinning like the village idiot, but she couldn’t help it. She pulled the magical gem back onto her hand; the leather was comfortable and slightly worn against the skin of her hand. It started glowing instantly.
In a flash of blue light, Umi’s sword was in her hand, and she whirled and headed towards Tama; she held out a hand towards the maid. “Come on. You can come with me, back to Cephiro. Selece said he’ll take us both there. You can be safe, live in the palace.”
Tama’s eyes widened hopefully, and she nodded fervently. Then the expression changed from joy to horror, and she screamed, “Umi, look out!”
At the last second, Umi raised her sword and blocked a harsh blow from Aeric’s sword. The blonde general was now back on his feet, looking a tiny bit singed and extremely disgruntled. He smirked as she repelled his attack. “So the Knight of Windam isn’t the only one with half a brain. Impressive.”
Instinctively, Umi raised her blade and lowered herself into a stance, putting most of her weight forward, onto her toes. It was easier to make fast or sudden movements that way.
But he didn’t attack. Instead, he examined his blade for a moment, and then regarded her with a curious sort of stare. “Tell me something, Umi, because I’m just dying of curiousity. What do you do, exactly? For the Magic Knight team, I mean.”
She blinked. “What?”
“Well, the Knight of Rayearth—Hikaru, I believe it is—is known for her courage. And Windam’s Knight—Fuu, is it?—is famous for her intelligence,” he explained in the kind of voice a parent would use when speaking to a very small child. “So where do you fit in? Do you really serve any sort of useful purpose for this team?” He chuckled. “Or is it true—you’re just a pretty face, the damsel in distress?”
Umi snarled, and in one swift, fluid movement, she leapt forward, knocked the blade from his hand, ducked down, and landed a perfect kick to his stomach. He was surprised enough that he stumbled backwards while she easily flipped over, landing on one knee, holding her sword out in front of her. She made a mental note to thank Hikaru profusely for the self-defense lessons.
But her opponent was already getting back up and coming after her. It was time to go, she thought, spinning around. Umi reached out, and her hand closed around Tama’s wrist. She saw the maid’s startling blue eyes widen in surprise and fear, but there was no time. Aeric was upon them, his sword raised, and that insane look in his eyes once again.
A strange thing happened. A small torrent of water exploded, seemingly from the wall just above Umi’s head. It was at the perfect height to nail the soldier squarely in the mid-torso, and knocked him backwards several feet. It was just the opening she needed as he scrambled at her again.
“Go!” The strange female voice from her dreams barked the order in her mind, and she did not dare disobey whoever it was that had decided to protect her like this.
She took a small amount of pleasure in seeing the soldier’s eyes widen in realization as she thrust her sword arm into the air and screamed with every fiber of her being, “SELECE!” A burst of blue light surrounded her and Tama, and the last thing she heard was the sound of metal scraping against stone as Aeric’s sword cut through the empty air where they had just been, scraping against the stone walls.
When Umi opened her eyes next, there was the strange floating sensation that she had come to associate with mashin riding. And sure enough, she was wearing the armor and cape of the Knight of Selece. At her side, Tama was clinging desperately, fearfully to her arm, whimpering softly.
“It’s all right,” she patted her friend’s back gently, then looked up. “Great timing, Selece.”
“Nice to see you again as well.”
“Can we go home now, pretty please?” Umi pleaded.
“As you wish,” Selece boomed, and Tama cringed. “Next stop, Cephiro!”
Fuu nearly jumped out of her skin as Windam’s rumbling baritone popped into her mind. But she recovered quickly, and called up towards the ceiling, “Windam, what’s happening?”
Rayearth’s voice chimed in. “Selece will return shortly, bearing his Knight.”
The last word had barely been relayed, via Hikaru, and Clef had already summoned up an image on the globe they used to observe the action. And sure enough, when the picture finally swam up into clarity, Umi was quite visible, riding in the mashin. There was another girl with her, clinging desperately to her arm; the Magic Knight seemed to be talking to this unknown girl, as though reassuring her.
“She’s okay!” Kagura half-screeched.
Hikaru and Fuu were already scrambling out of the room, though, heading for the place where experience told them she would be most likely to land. The others followed quickly.
“Has she gone?”
It was a question Xander already knew the answer to, yet he asked it anyway.
“She has,” Aeric replied from somewhere behind him. “She took the girl with her.”
A moment of silence, followed by, “Leave me.” The instant the dismissal was given, Aeric all but vanished from the room. Xander remained alone, staring out the window.
So she had left.
He frowned; his brow furrowed. And a vase across the room exploded.
His expression relaxed; he felt better.
A thought occurred to him, then, and he mulled over it. He had strongly suspected it earlier, but now he was certain of it. And the familiar smirk crept back into his face. “She doesn’t know. After all this, she still doesn’t know…”
“This is really happening!” Tama half-squealed, looking around frantically.
“Yup!” Umi beamed. “This is Selece, my mashin.”
The girl looked up at Umi hopefully. “And we’re really going to Cephiro?”
Umi was momentarily startled—damn, that girl had blue eyes! But then again, so did she. And instead she simply answered, “Selece will take us to the Cephirean palace. We’re almost there.” She turned her head and looked out the window. “Scratch that, we’re here!”
Sure enough, the crystalline palace of Cephiro loomed just ahead.
“You’ll like it much better here, Tama. I promise,” Umi said. “I promise you’ll have a place at the palace, if I have to browbeat Clef into it myself. Don’t worry.” Tama looked vaguely placated, and was relatively calm as they flew up beside the palace.
In a flash of blue light, they were both standing on the deck of the palace where on several previous occasion the Magic Knights had been let out of the mashin. It was so good to be back…
Unfortunately, the peace was short-lived as two blurs—one red and one green—came around the corner and hit her squarely, and all three Magic Knights tumbled to the floor, Umi squashed firmly between them in a tight hug. A second later, another form—Kagura—joined the fray.
“We thought they might have killed you! Are you hurt?” Fuu asked a little more slowly.
“You really had us freaked out, you know that?” Kagura half-sobbed.
“Guys, I’m fine. Really. But…” she chuckled dryly, “could you let me get up, please? There’s somebody I want you to meet.” They immediately let her go and pulled her to her feet—
—just in time for her to be hit once again, this time by a squealing Caldina. And for the second time in as many minutes, Umi was tackled to the floor. When she finally managed to extract herself from Caldina’s grasp and get back on her feet, the rest of the crew had assembled. Takeshi was first in line to scoop her up in a big bear-hug. All were jabbering at her eagerly, all demanding to know the exact same thing: was she already, had she been hurt, had she learned anything?
And behind her, her new friend looked terrified. Umi decided to prioritize, and she held up a hand for silence. “Guys, guys, hang on. First things first! There’s someone I want you to meet.” She turned and gestured for Tama to come over. “This is Tama. She was a servant in his palace, and she helped me escape. She’ll be staying here with us. Okay?” That last word was said in a tone that allowed for no arguments.
Fortunately, the majority of the Cephirean residents seemed plenty open to the idea of housing the one who had aided Umi in her escape. Only one seemed to harbor any reluctance, though it was not voiced.
“I’ll work for you, I promise!” Tama was almost in tears for joy, and everyone immediately set about with introductions and assuring her that it was not necessary. But one person in the group hung back, watching carefully. Something didn’t sit right with him.
Clef frowned. Hmmmm…