Hilda stared out at the white expanse rolling on and on, the gray sky, the cold, bitter wind. She waited for the surge of love usually coming from beholding this vista, but there was only a small stir within. That was odd. She usually thought of Asegard as the loveliest, most pleasant home. Here was her life, her soul. The latter had been shredded to scraps, but she went on. She had to.
Tears stung her eyelids, were forced back grimly. Sometimes she hated the other woman so much, she of the long lavender hair and large lavender eyes, she that had brought about so many deaths in this land. No – that was not being fair. If there was anyone to blame for this mess, it was herself. Yet how could she live with it? How could she live with the knowledge that she had caused seven brave men to meet their end, one of them harboring a feeling for her more than a warrior would his Queen? That she had not done it on purpose mattered little; the result did.
Well, she would not sit here and lament fate, that was a start. She needed some time away from…from all this. Yes, that was what she would do. Seek a temporary escape, and later return to her people with a clearer mind, a calmer heart. Only then could she perform the duty she had been commended (burdened, whispered a treasonous small voice, which she quelled) with. Her sister could pray in her place. After all, they had nearly the same amount of power. Her sister would understand. She winced a bit as she recalled that she once had wanted to kill the gentle, golden-haired girl who was her own flesh and blood.
She rose slowly from her chair, a tall, graceful woman with flowing crystal gray hair and a pointed chin. The snow was falling like so many fluffs of cotton. She let her gaze follow them drift onto the land. Her land.
Freya did not offer much comment when she told her of her intention to leave. Her sister had simply nodded and said, "You certainly could use some rest. And don’t worry too much about keeping the ice solid. I’ll manage until you return."
She had been dreading to find a trace of malicious relief in Freya’s words, and discerned none. She supposed it was because somewhere inside her still lurked the suspicion that Freya blamed her for Hagen’s death. If so, Freya never showed it. And she knew her sister too well; Freya was not the kind of person who would present one face to her and another when she was not looking. Therefore why did the suspicion linger? She did need this respite then, to clear her conscience and ease her mind of doubts.
Thus she set out very early the next morning, when even the servants had not yet awakened.
PART ONE: CHANCE ENCOUNTERS
Students spilled out into the corridors, the boys with their black and gold-buttoned uniforms, the girls with their dark blouses and skirts. Although Japanese school rules had it that noise was not allowed in the corridors, there was no mistaking the excitement on every face and tone of voice. It was the last day of school before New Year’s holiday.
A boy of about sixteen, unnoticed in the midst of so many teenagers, weaved his way patiently through. His shirt was half-open and his mahogany hair was tousled and grown a little long. At last he reached the class at the end of the corridor. He peered in, smiling.
The teacher, still collecting an array of books on the table, did not look up. "In a minute." He stuffed the books into an open bag. "I’ve got a meeting first. That should take about thirty minutes. Would you wait?"
"I’ll be in the car." The boy left.
Snow was already coating the pavement as he sauntered out of the school building. None of the students paid him any attention. As he went past the gate, someone shouldered him roughly aside. He stumbled but did not fall. The person who had pushed him, a fifteen-year-old boy with bovine physique and face, shouted, "Watch where you’re going!" before speeding away.
"But I did," the boy said quietly. A few girls cast him a sidelong glance and hurried off giggling as he caught their eyes. He smiled to himself and walked on.
Finding his car – or, to be exact, his friend’s, the teacher, car – climbed in. He was sitting comfortably at the front seat when he felt it: a giant surge of energy, which he could not recognize instantly. Tensing, he waited for several seconds. The energy blinked out. He tuned in his senses but the alien energy did not reappear. He got out.
There, strolling along the sidewalk bordering the school area and the road, was a woman. All he could see of her was streaming hair the color of ice beneath a smart felt hat and her long black overcoat. He followed the woman, who did not show any sign of noticing him, with his eyes, until she went out of sight. Then he sank back into the seat, releasing a breath that was white vapor.
"The Princess of the North," he mused aloud. "I wonder what she’s doing here – and if she sensed that energy too?"
"Good afternoon," the landlord said affably.
"Good afternoon, Tomohiro-san," Hilda replied, equally friendly.
"Just gone shopping?" He waved at her shopping bag.
Hilda smiled fleetingly. "These are all I could get my hands on. The shelves were close to empty."
"Well, this is the holiday season, what do you expect?" He eyed her black overcoat with something like fascination. "Aren’t you cold wearing only that old thing? It’s about twenty degrees below zero, according to my thermometer."
"I’m used to cold." She nodded at him and went inside.
The apartment she had rented for almost two weeks now was small and characterless. There was no TV, no paintings on the wall, no knickknacks to liven up the place. The heating system was broken down on her first day here, but she never told anyone to fix it. She was comfortable with the freezing air. It was so much like home.
To her the apartment was just a room to eat and sleep in, and she had no intention of staying for long. The peace of mind she had been hoping for was surprisingly easy to come by here, thousands of miles away from Asegard. In a week or two she would depart. Freya would be glad to see her, and she was beginning to miss Asegard and its people acutely. What was she doing here anyway – in Tokyo, no less? She might run into any of the Saints, something she would not want to happen. Not that she supposed that was likely.
The shopping bag was dropped indifferently on the floor as she walked over to the window, doffing her hat. Outside it was white and quiet, reminding her of her homeland. Only there were more houses here, and the people were of course were more what most called "modern". She wanted to smile at this silliness. What was so great in being more "modern", if all it brought you was pollution, rising crime rates and less feeling of unity, of brotherhood? It was far better in Asegard.
"And I don’t say so because I rule it," she said. The sound of her own voice startled her. She really had to stop this habit of talking to herself. If someone else heard, they would twirl their fingers around their ears behind her back. She knew she was arousing some amount of curiosity because she lived alone, did not appear to have any acquaintances, and did not seem to be in want of any. Well, let them speculate. She would be leaving soon in any case.
Her hand dived into her pocket. It came out holding seven glittering sapphires. She contemplated them, beautiful blue against her palm, before putting them back inside the pocket. She had brought them with her, for somehow the mere sight of them soothed her, the memory of her Warriors now subsiding into a dull ache she could bear and, she knew, would one day turn into nothing more than bittersweet remembrance. And was it not her right to carry these? She was Odin’s chosen, as were the men she had inadvertently sent to the grave. It was only proper that she carried them within her.
The clock struck six. Sighing, she headed for the kitchen to prepare for dinner. She wished her sister were here; Freya was inarguably the better cook between them.
Last night snow fell fast and furious, so they blanketed the streets this morning. She could see street-sweepers cleaning slush off the pavement from where she sat, inside a snug coffee parlor. Her order was yet to arrive. She folded her arms on the table and leaned forward on them.
"…also present was Miss Kido Saori, the owner of…"
Body rigid, she turned to the 20-inch television installed high on the wall above the counter. The face of Athena was filling the screen. She seemed to be making a congratulatory speech of some sort. It was brief and ended with applause. Then she stepped off the podium and someone else took her place.
Hilda dropped her eyes, feeling a little confused. She should not have felt anything now, she was supposed to be immune to yesterday’s demons, the scars healed. So why did simply seeing Athena still made her heart beat, guilt and shame creep in? Then she said to herself: It was just the surprise. She had not expected to see anything that would call to her mind her period of madness here, in a small coffee parlor where no one knew her. That was all there was to it.
The waitress sailed in and put a cup of steaming black coffee in front of her. Hilda murmured her thanks. The bells on the entrance door tinkled musically as a tall, broad-shouldered man rushed in. Brushing snow from his jacket, he took it off and half-threw it to the coat-hanger.
"Phew! Never seen so much snow all in one morning!" he exclaimed to the owner, who was lounging behind the counter. "The usual will do."
"Not teaching, Inoue?" asked the owner.
"School’s out, for which I’m sure the kids are grateful." He stopped near Hilda and smiled politely. "Is this seat taken?"
Absorbed in her own thoughts, she did not hear him and jumped when he repeated the question. "Oh, no," was all she had the time to get out before he took the chair opposite hers.
"Sorry, but the others are all booked." He greeted the waitress, who dropped him a coquettish wink. Proceeding to ignore Hilda, he fished out a newspaper from his pocket and began to read it.
Although the man did nothing to indicate he wanted to chat or have anything to do with her, Hilda was not exactly comfortable having him sitting right across her. Before he came the table had been hers alone, and the man was an intruder. What a ridiculous notion, of course – this coffee parlor did not belong to her, and everybody could sit where they liked. Nevertheless, she did not want to linger. She finished her coffee and rose.
The man lowered his newspaper. "Hey, wait! I’m not driving you off, am I?"
"No, not at all," Hilda said, hailing the waitress. "How much, please?" She paid the amount given and told the waitress to keep the change.
But the man was not to be daunted. "Would you mind another cup?" he said, offering a smile which, Hilda was privately sure, used to or still did steal a girl’s breath away. "On the house. Setsuko, a cup for the lady. How would you like it?"
"I really must be going…"
"What, with all the snow raining like artillery out there? Even if you were born in the North Pole, a cup of hot coffee would be much nicer, I daresay."
Was there a slight emphasis on ‘North Pole’, or was it just her imagination? "All right, but I’m not staying long. I’ve got some packing to do."
The man beamed. "Excellent!"
Setsuko, the waitress, bustled away, perhaps indignant that her idol was occupied with another woman, Hilda thought, a bit amused. By common sense she should be going – the man was probably of the kind whose pastime was amusing himself with women he found on the street or in any public place. Then she decided to see how it turned out. If he was advancing too far she could always take her leave.
"My name’s Inoue Naoya," he was saying, hand extended.
Hilda kept hers on her lap. "I’m Hilda."
He did not look the least bit offended; he merely laughed, and the sound of it was pleasant, frank. "All right, so you think I do this all the time, make conversations with ladies who happen to share my table. But I don’t, believe it or not." He folded the newspaper and put it aside. "Hilda, what a lovely name. Had Siegfried ever told you that?"
For a moment she could neither breathe nor think. When the shock receded, she rallied her wits about her and managed a composed face. "I really don’t know what you’re talking about."
Naoya flashed her a conspiratorial smile. "Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. My friend noticed you yesterday and he’s been wondering what you’re up to in Tokyo, so far from the Pole. As a result – here I am. Now, there’s no need to be so alarmed. I’m not your enemy. We – my friend and I – are just interested passersby. Sure, I could begin all this by deluding you into thinking we know nothing, but that’ll be deceiving you and you wouldn’t like that."
Her hand stole into her pocket, where she kept the seven sapphires. "Who are you?" she said frostily. "Did Athena send you?"
"Dear me, listen to her! We’re not playing cloak-and-dagger game here, Princess. I’m here on my friend’s and my own behalf. We want to know what brought you here, and whether we could offer any help."
The words penetrated no farther than Hilda’s ears. She knew whoever this man and his friend, if there ever were such a person, could be, they were potential opponents. She did not believe they were just curious to know her business. "Tell me what it is you really want."
Setsuko arrived with a cup of coffee. Naoya waited until she sashayed away. "What I’ve told you. Come now, Princess, there still are honest folks in this immoral, debased world. We were just thinking maybe you were in track of somebody. And my friend mentioned there was someone else in this town with a huge power – beside yourself, that is. Are you after this person?"
Naoya was staring at her with a candid expression on his face, and she did not want to reciprocate by lying. "No, I’m not tracking anyone. I’m here to get some peace and quiet. Now will you please leave me?"
He got to his feet and gave her a final smile. "You said you had some packing to do. Does that mean you’re leaving soon?"
"Good morning, Inoue."
"Fine, I’ll go. But don’t think this is the last of our meetings, Lady Hilda. Our paths may cross again in the near future."
"If you ever consider going to Asegard…"
"Oh, that’s not what I’m saying! The powerful entity my friend has sensed may want to wreak havoc here and you, good, dutiful person that you are, may feel compelled to stop him or her. No one else is available, you see. Athena and her Saints are presently engaged in Hades."
She remained calm. "What about you and your friend? Surely you’re strong enough to deal with this ‘powerful entity’?"
"Such things no longer hold our interest, Princess. We leave Earth-defending to those who seem to want such a job. Good day to you." He laid several yen-notes on the table and sauntered out.
For a while she sat unmoving. Then she drank her coffee and got out.
The entire town was white sprinkled with colorful lights. It was a beautiful sight, and Aislinn thought of what the twenty-second century missed. For Earth at that period would never stand winter; it was dreary enough already. But this Earth was soon to be laid waste, and possibly this would be the last winter anyone would know.
She was standing on top of a skyscraper, long hair tied back into a cable-like plait, her figure hidden by a long robe whipped about by the wind. She had been here for two days, and watched. There was no sign of either Athena or her Saints. They might be on vacation, or battling with yet another enemy. Fight after fight after fight. And Desmo and his friends actually chose to take the responsibility as protectors of Earth. Some people were such fools.
"Observing your prey-to-be?"
Gasping a little, she swung on her heels. She had not felt any other presence beside hers, and the young man’s was a total shock. He was standing several feet away, wearing a pilot’s jacket and denims, as comfortably as if it had been the height of spring instead of freezing winter. His dark Asiatic eyes were studying her with remote interest.
"Who the hell are you?" she snapped, not liking to be caught off-balance.
He gave a careless shrug. "You can call me Junichi, for convenience’s sake. Well, it seems you came here at a lucky time. Athena and the Saints are away, so the world’s yours for the taking." His smile was almost charming. "I agree, it’s stupid to be spending your life in skirmishes, but they think that’s what they were born for and I’m never one to tell people what to believe or what not to." He gazed around appreciatively. "Vantage point of view, wouldn’t you say?"
She had mastered her astonishment by now and was ready for battle. "What do you want?" she said flatly.
"Only to remind you that you won’t be having your way all the time. One of these days you have to play fair for a change."
"And how does it concern you?" Her chin lifted slightly.
"It doesn’t," he replied. "I’m not a Saint, neither am I on their side. I just don’t want to see someone like you taking advantage of their absence."
The deliberate scorn made her flush. Without warning she released a tide of power, electric blue and rearing up like a breaker on the beach, straight at him.
He brought his clasped fingers forward, meeting her attack. Her energy clashed against those fingers, stopped, trembled and broke apart. She could not believe her eyes. No single person had ever been able to deflate her attack so fast. Anger smoothing out into caution, she examined him. Whoever he was, he must be a truly worthy enemy.
"Are you going to make things difficult for me?" she asked.
He surprised her by laughing. "Gosh, no! I’m not interested in contending with you. I’m simply a spectator, all I do is watch and enjoy. Oh well," he shrugged, "the Saints may be away but at least someone else just happens to be in town and may be able to, as you put it, make things difficult for you."
This was unexpected. "Who? Who is he?"
A strong gust blew into her face, so that Aislinn had to squint. When she looked again, the young man calling himself Junichi was gone.
She clenched her fist, her anger resurfacing. Her day had just been ruined. But she would go on with her plan. Whoever the person Junichi had been referring too could not have been a match for her. Only the Saints were. If she were quick, she would roll up this city in the palm of her hand come tomorrow. By that time everything would be too late for the Saints.
PART TWO: GUARDIANS
Much as she hated to admit it, the meeting with the man Naoya disturbed Hilda. He was too mysterious for her liking, for one thing. For another, there was that – warning? news? – about the powerful entity bent on owning the world, starting from Tokyo. Hilda could not be too sure whether it was true or not. Even if it was, what did Naoya expect of her, defeat this entity and save the day? She sighed and snuggled her palms inside her coat pockets. Asegard was sounding more enticing by the second. She would leave tomorrow morning. Let the Saints take care of their city.
A flow of Cosmos swept past her, and Hilda stopped in her tracks. She did not recognize this one – it belonged to none of Athena’s Saints, or to anyone she had ever come in contact with. Was it Naoya? She looked up, and what she saw stilled her completely.
Far above the towering, chromium-shiny buildings black spots were gathering in the sky. Each of them spread outward with incredible speed until their edges met. Those spots did not resemble anything Hilda had ever seen – they seemed to be huge and awfully thick. More people were looking up, and cries of horror broke out.
There were twinkles of light flashing across the black spots. Hilda felt herself reverberate and her energy surged out in reflex to protect her. Everybody else who had been standing were falling on their faces as abruptly as though they had been axed. Cars bumped into one another, and the roads were noisy with the crashes of shattered glasses and connecting bumpers. The silence which followed was eerie and unnatural.
"So it’s you."
Hilda’s head snapped up. Perched on a street lamp was a person she did not know. She radiated a Cosmos which almost but not quite reminded Hilda of Athena. Only this Cosmos had no serenity and love in it. When it brushed past Hilda her voluntary reaction was a need to shrink away, which she did not do. "Who are you?"
The person did a skip and floated down effortlessly. She was now only a few feet apart from Hilda. "Who are you?" Her tone was cold and lofty, which set Hilda’s mettle up.
"I asked you first," she said, hiding her dislike.
"I’m Aislinn," the stranger replied, eyes traveling up and down Hilda in a manner she found insulting. "Let me guess – you come from the North, right? I can tell from your Cosmos. This doesn’t concern you, so back off."
Hilda was estimating Aislinn’s power. She was no easy opponent, but then, no one with meager Cosmos could pull a stunt like this. "If the Saints of Athena know you’re here…"
"But they don’t, which makes my job so much easier."
Hilda glanced around at all the prostrate bodies littering the street. "So you’re taking over Tokyo while the Saints’ backs are turned. I wouldn’t call that a very sportive attitude."
"Is that a challenge? What is your name anyway?" Now there was impatience as well in Aislinn’s voice.
I got under her skin, Hilda thought. That’s a nice start. "I’m Hilda," she said, and for a random moment she recalled Naoya saying, What a lovely name. Had Siegfried ever told you that?
Aislinn was saying, "All right, Hilda, let’s see what you can do," and lashed out her energy, an explosion in blinding white.
Hilda raised her own power, a process accomplished before her conscious mind even realized it. Aislinn’s energy slammed into her and it was like running head-on into a torpedo. She could feel her bones echo the impact as she half-stumbled backward. Luckily for her dignity she did not lose her footing.
"That’s nothing," Aislinn said before Hilda could reassemble her strength. "I haven’t even used half of my power, Hilda of the North!" Tentacles of light shot forth from her, closing the distance between them.
Another energy descended on both women, straight at Aislinn’s assault. The tentacles of light scattered and twinkled away into oblivion. Aislinn looked up, slanted yellow eyes burning with rage. Hilda raised her eyes too, but try as she might, she could not detect a third presence.
"Today after sunset, at the Tokyo Tower!" Aislinn stepped back, her robe fluttering about her. She swirled around and strode off. Hilda gazed after her.
A man lying near her feet began to stir, hoisted himself up on his elbows and blinked owlishly. Several people were doing the same, an expression of dazed confusion settling on their faces. Hilda walked away quickly, her mind in turmoil.
Aislinn was expecting her this sunset. Should she come? She had to, it seemed – the Saints were busy elsewhere. Someone had to take care of this town, and if Naoya was unwilling to, that meant the responsibility fell to her.
You are Queen of Asegard, whispered a small voice within. This city can take care of itself. Besides, the Saints may arrive soon. You can leave Aislinn to them. Return to Asegard…to your own.
But somehow Asegard was losing its appeal for the time being.
No one was within sight when Hilda came back to her building. For that matter, no sound was heard, either. It was as though everyone had left. Then she knew why: it was not even eleven in the morning. People were still out to work. She slid the key home and let herself into her apartment.
She had not expected a problem here, but she was faced with one nonetheless. Aislinn had meant it when she said she wanted to take over Tokyo in the Saints’ absence. And she appeared to be more than capable to carry out the threat.
Well, there were Naoya and his yet-to-show-up friend. They could handle Aislinn if they chose to. That was the key phrase – if they chose to. Judging from Naoya’s attitude, Hilda had no doubt that he and his friend meant to lean back and doze while Aislinn became the new mistress of Tokyo. When the Saints returned, they would oust Aislinn. Up until now they had not failed to defeat any enemy.
But what if it was too late by then?
Too many ifs, too many speculations. Hilda sank into the couch, her toes prying her shoes off her feet. She recalled wryly how those ladylike pumps had invited glances of disbelief from the landlord, Tomohiro – he must be thinking that she intended her feet to catch frostbite, wearing pumps in this season.
The silence was overwhelming, and for the first time she wished for something to drown it, a TV or a stereo set maybe. But what need had she of those? They were part of a culture she did not participate in. She would rather read, and she had spent many hours in the public library during her stay here. Since she had known a smattering of Japanese and was by nature an excellent polyglot, she picked up the language pretty fast, having only difficulty with some of the characters.
The couch, although old, was cozy. It was Hilda’s favorite furniture in this bare apartment. There she could relax, listen to the world turning and going on around her, or even catch a nap. Now she lay her head against it, eyes staring unseeingly at the ceiling. She wanted to think this matter over calmly and rationally. Damn the Saints, why did they have to be out of town at a time like this? And how had Aislinn known they would? For that matter, who was Aislinn, exactly?
She had to come to the Tokyo Tower this sunset, whether she liked it or not. Not her territory this city might be, but she could not follow Naoya’s example and just stand idly by while it was under threat. There was another issue: Naoya and his friend. They were obviously able to stop Aislinn – why not do so?
A series of knocks rattled the door and she nearly jumped, so deep was she in thought. Thinking it was Tomohiro, she bounced off the couch and ran to the door, expecting some emergency.
Naoya smiled at her as she peered from behind the door. "Hello," he said, completely oblivious of her suddenly rigid countenance. "I just discovered I lived in the building next door, and you might want some company."
"My own is sufficient, thank you," she said, not budging. Then she noticed that he was carrying a small couscous kettle which did not seem empty.
He saw her gaze, and raised the kettle slightly. "This is something I made for lunch. My friend isn’t home yet, and I suppose you wouldn’t mind sharing it with me. Don’t worry, I’m a fairly excellent cook, if I say so myself. May I come in?"
As she debated within herself whether or not she should let him in, he was already lifting the kettle’s lid. Aromatic steam rose to reach her nose.
"Well?" he said.
Reluctantly she stepped aside. He walked in, kettle perfectly poised in hand. "The dining table is over there," Hilda said, gesturing. "I’ll set it first."
Not waiting for his reply, she strode toward the dish cabinet. She heard him set down the kettle. What did he want here? Was he Aislinn’s agent – or was he truly what he had said he was? In any case she must not lower her guard. If Naoya thought he could woo her through her stomach the man had better think twice.
The kettle’s content turned out to be some sort of soup. It was slightly too meaty for Hilda’s taste, but on the whole it was delicious. She found herself taking a second helping. As she ate, she caught Naoya’s small smile and put down her spoon, irritated.
"What do you want?" she demanded. "Don’t tell me you only want to share your cooking, because you don’t." She had noticed that Asians usually beat about the bush before they got to the point, but she had neither patience nor time to do so.
Naoya looked mildly startled. "Princess, you injure me. I come here with the good intention of treating you, and here you are accusing me of being double-faced." He had finished eating before she did, and was now sitting in his chair with the air of a complacent cat.
"I don’t like being lied to, or led around in circles. Who are you, really – and your friend?"
The complacency vanished; he looked suddenly grave. "The Saints guard Athena, and you guard your land," he said quietly. "I and my friend guard Tokyo. That is all we have to guard."
"Then why don’t you seem to care about Aislinn?"
"Oh, that’s because we only step in when we have to." Lightness crept back into his tone. "We don’t intend to solve every crisis that threatens Tokyo. It can be boring. Besides, we can’t very well put the Saints out of job. They’re bursting at the seams to be heroes, so we let them steal the stage. We prefer to watch. And now that you’re here, I see no reason to bring ourselves into the spotlight."
Hilda stared hard at his cool dark eyes. "What are you called?"
"Watchers? Protectors? I don’t know and don’t care much. You see, Princess, this is a legacy. My friend’s name is Nomoto Junichi, by the way. His family and mine were chosen to keep Tokyo safe, a long, long time ago. Every seven generations the power will be acquired by the only child. This time it happens to be Junichi’s turn and mine. Our children and grandchildren won’t possess this power – but seven generations later, someone will." He gave an airy shrug. "I’m not over-excited by this protecting business, though. It’s not like Tokyo is lacking in protectors, what with the Saints and Athena here, if you want to call her a Protector. I enjoy being an ordinary man – did I tell you I’m a teacher? And Junichi is just young enough to be my own student. His parents died when he was small – his mother of cancer, and his father dived off a roof after his company went down the drain. Tough boy, Junichi." He peered at her face. "I’m sorry, am I making you sleepy?"
"Almost." So they were powerful, and entrusted with Tokyo – if what Naoya said were true. Yet they did not care much for the responsibility. Hilda thought of Asegard, and was surprised to find her heart constricted with love. She had not laid eyes on her land for some time, and she was missing it acutely now. But she could not leave yet, not until the Aislinn problem was solved. "So you let people do your work for you, don’t you? Some protectors."
Naoya’s expression did not change. "Princess, we make our own destiny. My destiny is to be a high school teacher, because I want it to. Junichi’s destiny is to become a student and later maybe an artist – he draws very well. I don’t want people to dictate me what to do or what not to do. My life is my own." He smiled brightly, dabbed at his mouth with a napkin and pushed back his chair. "Thanks for sharing the lunch with me. I wish we could do it again sometime."
"I don’t think it’s likely." She told him of Aislinn’s challenge.
He frowned. "She challenged you?" Then, after a pause, "Do you think you’re going to win?’
In a vivid flash Hilda recalled Aislinn’s power, and her lips tightened. "If I die, I just hope Freya – my sister – will look after Asegard and pray every day to keep the ice solid."
"Ah, Princess, you are so noble. Even now, your land and your people are your first consideration." Naoya clapped the lid on the couscous kettle. "Well, different people, different ways of thinking. Should I send your remains to your sister, then, if the worst came?"
Her blood was up at once, but she controlled it. "I’d appreciate it."
"I’ll use DHL." He sketched a bow, and left.
She did cool down some time after Naoya walked out, as she had expected. Doing the dishes helped; it kept her hands occupied, at least. After she was done, she sat again in the couch, but she did not cuddle against it. Instead she sat up straight, back barely touching the couch.
Why had she been incensed at Naoya’s careless attitude toward his responsibility? It was, after all, none of her business. And he had been right – people did choose their own path. Probably it was because she did not treat her own responsibility lightly, and had come close to abusing it, thanks to the Niebelung ring. She could not bear to see anyone else placing their charge in so low a place.
Well, she was not going to see him again anyway. Neither could she afford any delay. After she had finished with Aislinn – provided all went well for her – she would return to Asegard forthwith.
And if all did not go well? Hilda resolutely put the thought away. She had come this far; she would not back down. Aislinn would find a very determined match this sunset.
"Do you suppose she’s going to win?" Junichi asked.
Naoya looked up from the magazine he was skimming through rather than reading. "Hilda?"
"No, Aislinn. Of course it’s Hilda."
It was three in the afternoon, and they were relaxing in the apartment they shared. They had recognized each other almost the instant they met – almost right after the death of Junichi’s parents – as though those deaths were arranged to result in just such a fashion, Naoya sometimes thought. Naoya took Junichi in and they had been watching things progress since then.
When the Saints first appeared on the scene, during the Galactic Wars, Junichi had been rather amused, more so as the young men changed from contenders for a Holy Armor to defenders of "a little rich brat". Although he sometimes doubted the Saints’ strength, they always came out the winner.
And now the Saints were away when Aislinn showed up. As luck would have it, Hilda also happened to be present. "A relief," Junichi shrugged. "I don’t want to come out of our hiding hole."
After returning from Hilda’s place, however, Naoya had been silent, buried in a magazine he was not reading. Junichi knew about Aislinn’s challenge, but did not believe that it was what bothered Naoya. If Hilda lost, they would step in and shoo Aislinn away – if Hilda won, the better for all sides involved.
Junichi turned down the TV volume. "You’re worried about her, aren’t you?"
Naoya slowly put aside the magazine, abandoning all pretenses of reading it. "A bit, maybe. If she dies, will her sister’s prayer suffice to keep the ice packed solid?"
"Let’s be optimistic. Who is this Aislinn character exactly, by the way? Do you know?"
"She used to live…aeons ago, I can’t tell precisely when. She was very powerful in those days, and the taste of power can be intoxicating. Then Athena put her to sleep. Someone must’ve woken her up, I don’t know who. And obviously she’s got a grudge against the Saints, so here she is. But instead of the Saints, she meets Hilda."
"Not a bad substitute, I believe. I heard Hilda almost beat the living daylight out of the Saints in the North Pole." A corner of Junichi’s mouth gave a small quirk.
This time Naoya laughed. "You could do so, and still the Saints would pop up again. It’s easy to knock them down. What’s hard is to make them stay down."
There was a pause. "You’ll go to the Tokyo Tower this sunset, won’t you?"
"Sure," Naoya said simply. "Wouldn’t you?"
"Will you ever come to Tokyo again?" said Tomohiro as he ushered Hilda down the stairs. She was carrying a tote bag, all of her worldly possessions – which were not many to begin with – neatly arranged inside. It was nearly five o’clock, and going to the Tokyo Tower would take approximately an hour. Hilda did not want to be late. Arriving early might just prove to be an advantage.
She now smiled at her erstwhile landlord. "I may, but not soon. I hope I’ve been a good tenant, Tomohiro-san."
The old man nodded, returning her smile. "You’re never noisy, you don’t invite strange folks to your place, and you keep things clean. If only everyone in this building were like you."
They had reached the front door. Hilda stopped and bowed slightly. "Thank you, Tomohiro-san. I’ll be sure to remember you if I visit Tokyo again."
"Farewell, Hilda-san." He appraised her with barely concealed curiosity. "You never told me where it is you come from. Are you a German? You speak Japanese pretty well, though."
"Thanks for the compliment," said Hilda, not answering the question. She went out and hailed a taxi. As it pulled up alongside, she climbed in without looking back.
PART THREE: TOKYO TOWER
Hilda reached the Tower as day faded over the metropolis. A few people drifted in and out of the skyscraping structure, none of them paying her any attention more than a cursory glance. She was surprised at how tense she felt. She was about to face an enemy whose power and origins she knew virtually nothing about. It gave her a sense of disorientation, which she attempted to suppress. Everything was going to be fine; everything had to be fine. She had no intention of getting killed here, so far away from her land.
A man and a woman were the only people she saw on the top floor. They were staring at the cityscape below and murmuring together, ignoring her. Hilda sauntered about slowly, every fiber tuned in to detect the smallest Cosmos. The couple left several minutes later. Hilda was alone. She was not sure which one she disliked most, the waiting or the suspicion that she had walked into a trap.
Vibrations of Cosmos made her look sharply around. Aislinn was standing against the opposite wall, hands folded. Her cat’s eyes surveyed Hilda coldly. Despite herself, Hilda felt the hair at her nape stir.
"I knew you’d come." Aislinn’s voice was dry.
"As if I had any other choice." Hilda silently summoned her own power, which coursed and tingled throughout her.
Was it just her, or was the Tower suddenly very quiet? The previously steady hum that indicated the presence of others had disappeared. She and Aislinn could have been the only people here. Hilda drew a breath and readied herself. Despite her misgivings, she had never walked away from a battle.
Blue flame detonated from Aislinn and transformed into ribbons of light, each wearing a face as fine as any Greek sculpture’s, and whooshed at Hilda. Without thinking, Hilda flung up her arms, mauve energy roaring out of her to check Aislinn’s. The two powers clashed and Hilda nearly fell, so violent was Aislinn’s charge. Beneath her the floor reverberated.
Giving her no respite, Aislinn leaped at her, the blue flame a blinding steady beam aimed at Hilda. Hilda made an upward semicircle with her hand, and once again Aislinn’s attack did not go through. She caught a glimpse of angry yellow slits before the third attack shattered her defense and caused her to stagger back a few paces. She lost her balance and did fall then, large black coat spreading like a pool around her. She saw Aislinn’s elbow lifted at an angle, as if she was about to throw a javelin.
She’s going to give me a final hit which I probably can’t survive, Hilda thought, and oddly enough it did not alarm or terrify her. She felt oddly numb, detached. A voice shrieked at her from a dimmer recess of her brain, telling her to get up, get up and retaliate for Odin’s sake, but she could not. She could only sit and watch as Aislinn’s power shimmered and flared. Blue energy uncoiled and headed straight at her.
Something stirred within her pocket, and Hilda started. Before she could think what it was, the seven sapphires shot forth. They floated in the air before her, their formation that of the Big Dipper. Aislinn’s attack made them shudder as they collided with it, but they did not give ground. They quaveringly held their place, serving as a barrier between the two women.
Only then did Hilda’s feet find the will to move and support her. She stood, shaking a little, eyes fixed on the sapphires. To her dismay, some of them were sporting small cracks here and there – they were not strong enough to hold Aislinn at bay, after all. Any minute now they would collapse. Before that she had to find a way. If only she could get her hands on the Odin sword! Her fingers twitched involuntarily.
Aislinn was studying the sapphires coldly. A pang of uneasiness jabbed at Hilda; she was not the only one noticing the sapphires’ temporary protection. Aislinn knew it was just a matter of time before the sapphires were, as the saying went, blown out of the water.
No, she would not give in. Damn it, she was a Priestess – she could not just watch while what remained of her Warriors strove to protect her! Hilda took a step forward, hands extended. Her palms contacted with the sapphires.
Electricity stung her flesh, but it did not deter her. On the contrary, she felt imbued with new strength. She released her energy, infusing it with the sapphires’ waning one.
I knew this, she said to herself calmly. In days of old the North could not be safeguarded with solo effort. The Priestess prayed but she also fought alongside the chosen Warriors. The Priestess was protected and protectress.
Like Athena? her memory gibed, but she ignored it. She was simultaneously drawing strength from and giving new power to the sapphires. Her skin glowed, her coat billowed, and she was exhilarated as she had never been before. At last she understood why her Warriors’ death had left her devastated; it was because a part of her had withered away with them. But not anymore: she was keeping them alive through her – she owed them that.
She was vaguely aware that Aislinn was increasing her own power, but she was past worrying. She was a match for Aislinn – she was the Queen of Asegard, with all the implications and responsibility the name entailed. And it would take more than Aislinn to bring her down.
The sapphires and she were one.
The realization filled her heart with joy.
Aislinn’s bright blue power dimmed before them. Enraged, Aislinn withdrew it to launch another effort. This proved to be a fatal mistake, since Hilda was releasing her newfound (newborn? she had time to wonder) power at her. Dazzling light exploded from Hilda, shots of it escaping out of the Tower.
With a piercing scream, Aislinn was hurled off her feet. She flew across the floor and hit the wall with a resounding thud. Her limp form froze, then slithered down and crumpled. For a moment she lay unmoving, abundant bluish hair hiding her face.
Hilda’s knees wavered as she called in all her energy. The sapphires cascaded onto the floor, and she scooped them up to clutch them against her pounding heart. She had done it. She had defeated Aislinn and repaid her debt to her Warriors at the same time. It made her feel almost dizzy. Then she turned a wary head at Aislinn’s direction. At this distance it was impossible to tell whether she was unconscious or not. Hilda gripped the sapphires and inched her way carefully to where Aislinn lay. When she was close enough, she went down on one knee and took Aislinn’s unresisting wrist. The pulse was there, but barely perceptible. Hilda moved a ginger thumb to the left of the base of the wrist – she had been told that was where Cosmos could be identified.
Nothing. She could not feel a single flicker. She pressed harder but still there was nothing. Exhaling, she put down the wrist and stood up. Aislinn would never bother anyone again – not the Saints, at least. Hilda contemplated her for several more seconds before swinging around. It was time to go home.
She met Naoya as she exited the Tower. He was walking jauntily along the sidewalk, dressed in casual jeans and sipping at a paper glass of Coke. A smile curved his mouth as she noticed him.
"Congratulations, Princess. I see luck favors you."
"What do you mean?" She was still cautious in this man’s company, but saw no reason to be overtly hostile to him. Anyhow she would never see him again.
He pitched the empty paper glass into a trash bin. "There’s one thing Aislinn – and you either – doesn’t know. This is a wrong place for her to be. She isn’t wanted here and now, in Tokyo of the twentieth century. The amount of her power isn’t as it should be. If it had been, you’d have had more trouble. I’m happy that it wasn’t the case."
Hilda listened impassively, then recalled something. "She seems to have lost her energy."
"Good for her. Are you returning to Asegard?"
In her mind’s eye she could already picture her land of snow, and she nodded. "Farewell, Inoue."
"Till we meet again, Princess."
He stared after her as she strode away briskly, not looking back. He still stared even after she vanished around a bend. The nocturnal wind blew softly at his hair, and the winter moon was pallid in the sky.