“Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Wufei was immensely relieved to see that Christy hadn’t been lying when she’d assured him that Mel’s aunt Ngaire wouldn’t be attending the Alliance anniversary ceremonies topless. He hadn’t thought she would lie, not really, but… it was still good to see that her sense of humour hadn’t been that evil.
It was still fairly evil, he thought wryly, standing back with Asuka and the other ceremonial guards against the wall of the Embassy’s foyer and keeping his face carefully blank. She could have mentioned the corollary: Ngaire is not topless because she is not a warrior, but Mel is not the only female warrior present. Two of the guards were indeed female, and were as bare and tattooed as Mel and the male guards. It was becoming difficult to avoid looking in certain directions without either obviously not looking, or blushing.
“Good morning everybody!” Mel carolled, sashaying forward so that her flax skirt rustled with the movement of her hips. “Did everybody sleep well? Hmm? Lovely. Hello Aunt Ngaire, so nice to see you again.”
The skin around Ngaire’s eyes tightened slightly as she looked her niece up and down, eyes lingering on her tattooed arms, but her mouth curved into a saccharine smile. “Melanie… dear. I wasn’t expecting you to be ready yet.”
“Why ever not? Lack of punctuality has never been one of my sins. Well, it’s not among my favourite sins, at least.”
“And you have such a selection to choose from.” Ngaire’s smile showed teeth for a moment.
Oh boy. Glancing to the side for a moment, Wufei was surprised to see that Asuka wasn’t watching the ‘friendly’ confrontation between the two women, but instead was staring intently at one of Ngaire’s escorts… and when Wufei followed his gaze to see who he was looking at, he found that the man was studying him.
He had light brown skin, dark blue tattoos swirling across his cheeks and forehead, and tightly-curled black hair. He was shorter than most of the other male members of Ngaire’s entourage -- shorter than some of the women, too, and definitely shorter than Mel -- but stocky, well built, with very little excess flesh on him; just enough to soften the outlines of his muscles so that he didn’t quite look like a bodybuilder. The tattoos on his upper arms contributed to the effect, drawn across the contours of his muscles instead of following and enhancing them like most of the others.
The way he holds himself, holds his spear… he’s studied some sort of martial art, I think, Wufei decided, shifting his eyes before the man could look up to his face and catch him staring back. He looks too heavy to be really fast, but I won’t be able to tell for sure until I see him move.
“His spear isn’t antique,” Asuka murmured, lips barely moving and voice so low he was almost inaudible.
“How can you tell?” Wufei murmured back.
“I’m Glacin. We have a lot of old whalebone artefacts. The head of his spear is something else.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
Looking back at Mel and her aunt, Wufei pretended to watch them while concentrating on the man in his peripheral vision. He seemed to be watching Mel now, studying her intently the same way he’d looked at Wufei (and presumably Asuka, to draw his attention), and Wufei didn’t think he was interested in her… ah… undeniably visible assets. After a while she shifted her weight, standing hip-shot with one hand at her waist while the other gestured languidly in the air, and a faint smile crossed the watcher’s face for a moment.
More like a sneer, really, Wufei decided, keeping his own face carefully blank. Mel’s muscled like a runner or an athlete, but that could be due to spending vanity time in the gym, and she’s not moving like herself-- well, she’s not moving like Mel, Pilot 5. She’s moving like Princess Melanie Tangaroa, well-known socialite layabout, and I think he’s buying it. But why is he evaluating her and her bodyguards as if we’re enemies?
Perhaps we are.
Mel turned, wiggling her fingers at her aunt in a sketchy farewell, and sashayed back to her escorts. “One sec, everyone, I forgot something. Wufei, Asuka, come here, would you?”
Her lips glistened with gloss as she smiled brilliantly at them. “I’ve seen all the others before,” she murmured, eyes bright behind her lashes, “so the chunky boy at Ngaire’s left shoulder has to be Piripi Matua, the one Ahorangi warned us about. I feel like he left eye-prints all over my legs.”
“His spear’s not an antique,” Asuka informed her, and her smile widened.
“I thought not, but it’s nice to have the confirmation. I think I know what she’s up to now. Wufei, there’s a flat box wrapped in cloth under my bed in Ahorangi’s spare room; I brought it just in case, but I didn’t want to take it to the ceremonies if I didn’t need it. Looks like I do. Leave your spear on the bed, carry the box using both hands and keep it level. Don’t unwrap or open it; the contents are sufficiently tapu that if you touch it, even the most liberal Maori modernists would be horrified.”
“What is she up to?”
“She’s either trying to get me killed, or just banished,” Mel said happily, eyes sparkling. “I can’t wait to find out which.”
- - - - -
If I had to do this often, I’d be a gibbering wreck-- no. I wouldn’t gibber. I’d probably just snap and start firing at imaginary assassins.
Heero marched beside the left rear wheel of Jay’s ruby-red convertible, one hand on the butt of his gun and scanning the buildings behind the main crowd through narrowed eyes. Other guards were watching the crowd, several in Vaterean uniform and others who seemed to be from the Ta-Resu-Meht military and police force lining the route, but since his eyesight and accuracy were good enough to find and neutralise snipers in the buildings, he’d assigned himself the trickier role. Trowa was doing the same thing on the other side of the car as it crawled down the wide street at a slow walking pace.
A good sniper wouldn’t even have to lead his target, and there isn’t enough wind for that to be a factor, he thought gloomily. If the Theodorians decide she’s an acceptable target, or find out that she’s a Gundam pilot, anyone they send would have to be a complete idiot to pass up this chance. Of course, getting away might be a trickier proposition…
Another thought struck him, and his steps faltered for a moment as he considered it. Jay’s somewhere between a strong empath and a receptive telepath. Can she pick an assassin out from this mess?
Beside him, waving serenely, Jay giggled.
…I think that’s a yes.
She giggled again.
Get out of my head, Jay.
She started to hum innocently.
Well, hopefully she’ll remember to warn us if she picks something up. I’m not going to count on it, though.
Jay hadn’t been kidding when she boasted that her fans would play music and dance; he’d seen some of them doing it in the airport at Bubastis, of course, but now they had the room to get serious about it. Some broke into song and swayed in place when Jay’s car came into view; some had brought ‘boom boxes’ and seemed to have rehearsed coordinated dance routines; and one truly memorable group had a small music player hooked up to immense speakers, with extension cords trailing into the nearest building through a second-storey window, and were stamping and spinning their way through an impressively acrobatic routine in matching costumes that ended with a shout and roses hurled into the convertible as it came level with them.
Heero nearly drew his gun. He was fairly sure he would have shot at least three of them if he hadn’t seen the flowers in their hands as they danced and suspected what was coming.
Half a block further on, someone ducked under the pole barrier on the right side of the road, dodged a policewoman’s grab, tripped a soldier into her path as she grabbed again, then took off towards the car as more guards started to move in. As they -- he -- ran, he reached into his jacket and pulled out something that glinted in the sunlight.
As he spun in that direction, yanking his gun out of its holster, Heero’s thoughts seemed to speed up, flashing one after the other but perfectly clear.
--weapon! Shoot him--
--what if he’s a distraction? Part of a pincer attack? Someone could be coming from this side--
--Trowa’s on that side, trust him to take care of it, guard my side--
--Jay’s not moving--
- - - - -
Trowa’s grip tightened on the butt of his gun as the running man lifted his hand, beginning to wave it in Jay’s direction; then he shoved it back into his holster and drew the whip instead, readying it with one practiced flick.
Whatever that is, he’s not holding it like a weapon.
The soldier and policewoman were disentangling themselves and reaching for their own weapons, visibly hesitating as they brought them up to aim; Jay was directly behind the runner from their angle, and shooting at him might easily hit either her or innocents in the crowd opposite. Jay’s driver was just beginning to react, head turning to see what was happening, but he was boxed in by the rest of the procession and couldn’t hit the accelerator without immediately slamming into the car in front.
Trowa took two quick steps forward and sideways, sliding between the oncoming fan and Jay, and coolly snapped the end of his whip into a tight coil around the man’s ankles. His target managed to hop two more steps, arms flailing ludicrously for balance; then Trowa gave one precise tug of the lash, and he spun in mid-air and crashed down onto his back, all the air going out of him in a pained grunt.
“Freeze! Don’t move! Hands on your head!”
“If he doesn’t move, how is he supposed to put his hands on his head?” Trowa asked calmly, drawing in the whip to keep it taut as he sauntered up. The fallen man rolled his eyes at him, struggling to breathe, and waved the small shiny thing in his hand feebly. Leaning down, Trowa plucked it from his fingers and straightened up to examine it.
“*wheeze* I wa-- *wheeze* wanted to gi-- *wheeze* give Lady Jar-- *wheeze* Lady Jarvia--”
Raising one eyebrow, Trowa showed the small bottle of cheap perfume to the gathered soldiers before passing it to another of Jay’s personal guards. “There are better ways to deliver a present,” he pointed out quietly, flipping his whip loose and starting to coil it up again. “Ways that don’t get you arrested, for a start.”
“Bu-but I wa-- *wheeze* wanted--”
“Try the mail next time,” Trowa advised, turning away to saunter back to his post.
- - - - -
“If I hadn’t already worked out that darling Aunt Ngaire was up to something, I’d know now,” Mel said through her teeth, smiling and waving at the crowds lining the parade route.
“Because she didn’t fight for first place?” Wufei asked, walking behind her right shoulder.
“Got it in one. Usually it takes a formal Order of Ceremony in my Aunt Whina’s handwriting to shut her up. I mean, I’ve got one, listing me as the official representative and her as my ‘advisor’ and all, but I didn’t even have to mention it.”
The sun was beating down out of a clear blue sky, and there was just enough of a breeze to cut the heat and ruffle the feathers and flax strips of their outfits. He could feel the warmth of the road through the woven sandals the Ambassador had passed out for them all to wear (ignoring Ngaire’s complaints about them not being either historically accurate or traditional), and his hands were beginning to sweat onto the red-and-black cloth wrapped around the flat box he was carrying.
It was surprisingly heavy for its size. Whatever was in it must be pretty solid, and padded well enough that it didn’t slide around when the box was moved. And tapu. Sacred. Whatever that means. I can’t tell whether Mel is serious or joking when she talks about it…
“How much further?” Asuka muttered, glaring ahead as if the distance was an enemy he could intimidate. “I’m gonna burn.”
“You have sunscreen on.”
“Two more blocks this way, then we turn and the palace is another three blocks north,” Mel told him, blowing a kiss to someone holding up a sign.
“And why are we walking, anyway? Jay got a damn car!”
“Fuck tradition,” the Glacin hissed.
“You’d still be walking even if I had a car.”
“Settle, petal,” Mel drawled, voice completely in her ‘Princess’ mode.
“I almost wish your aunt had argued her way into first place,” Wufei put in hastily, interrupting what sounded like a promising argument before it could get properly started.
“How come? Her rear end isn’t that good a view, you know.”
“Because I don’t like having enemies behind me,” he said, displaying admirable patience if he did say so himself.
“Ooh, good point.”
“Ha. Yeah. I’d be walking backwards to keep an eye on them if I thought I could get away with it,” Asuka agreed. “So, are we allowed to kill her when she tries whatever it is she’s planning, or just the toy boy?”
“Ah. Well. There’s the thing,” Mel said, fixed public smile twisting wryly for a second. “If I’m right about what she’s up to, it’s actually legal. You can’t interfere.”
“Yes we fucking well can!”
She sighed. “Sorry. I worded that badly. You can interfere all right, I admit that you’re more than capable, but you may not. And before you say something short and pithy involving the word ‘fuck’, Asuka, consider this: if you do interfere, she’ll get exactly what she wants.”
“You’re so eloquent.”
- - - - -
“Now what’s happening?” Dan asked quietly. There was another fanfare being played, muffled by the weighty doors in front of them.
“Didn’t you ever watch the anniversary ceremonies on TV?” Christy asked, staring straight ahead-- glaring straight ahead, really. Her right foot was tapping out a jerky tattoo on the floor.
“Ma cherie, if I had done so I would have seen you in your ceremonial role, and not been nearly so surprised last week,” he pointed out. “No. I have not.”
“One of the delegations is arriving.” She cocked her head to one side for a moment, considering. “Sounds like the Vatereans, actually. The fanfares are different, and they do greetings in everyone’s native language.”
“Ever had a traffic jam at the doors?” he asked, stifling a grin.
“Heck, no. We time things better than that, Martel,” she scoffed.
Another fanfare sounded, deeper and slower, and Christy’s glare snapped back into full force.
“I’m guessing that’s Tatarstan,” Duo muttered. She glared harder.
Standing slightly behind them, Quatre bit his tongue and continued gently waving his ostrich-feather fan. He didn’t really need to, given the very efficient air conditioning, but it looked much better than just standing there and gave him something to do other than joining in the conversation. If he opened his mouth, he was fairly sure he’d blurt out something that Christy didn’t want to be public knowledge… like the fact that when she talked about Tatarstan, or somebody mentioned Sergei Kushrenada’s name, she acted annoyed but felt happy.
The next fanfare was an odd booming drone, and Dan looked startled. “What the-- what was that?” he hissed, remembering to drop his voice halfway through.
Christy smirked. “Conch shell. That’s the Aotearoans.”
Quatre concentrated, pushing his awareness past Christy’s happy-warm glow and Dan’s odd feeling of gloating anticipation -- what was he planning, or what did he know? -- to feel for Mel, Asuka and Wufei. He was getting better at focussing the expanded empathy he seemed to have gained since arriving on Firma, though he was fairly sure he’d never get the sort of range and strength Jay showed (and was perfectly happy not to, really). There was the static-y buzz he always got from a large group of people he didn’t know well enough to read; he pushed past that as well, and picked up Trowa before finding anyone else.
He feels a bit smug. I wonder why?
Heero was there, wary and taut like a humming guitar string, and Jay, with the fractured shards he always ‘saw’ around her spinning quietly… there was Asuka, bright and sharp as an unsheathed knife and about as safe, Wufei, calm and ready with a trace of… embarrassment? …and Mel, simmering with gleeful anticipation, right next to a sticky, dark feeling of hatred and threat.
Ooh. Something’s going to happen all right. He let the awareness slide away into the background -- as far into the background as it ever receded now, at least -- and blinked his eyes back into focus, still fanning gently. “Mel’s expecting something,” he said softly. “Whatever her aunt is planning, she’s going to do it soon.”
“So it’s public nasty, not stealth nasty?” Christy muttered thoughtfully. Quatre felt a little guilty as her warm glow ebbed, making way for something colder, calculating. “Hmm.”
An elderly man in a white linen outfit very similar to Quatre’s shuffled forwards as the next fanfare sounded, bowing deeply to Christy; she inclined her head regally in acknowledgement, and he dipped even deeper before straightening up again.
“Akhetsau,” Christy said gravely. “I’m glad to see you looking so well. My uncle tells me you had a cold? Are you quite recovered?”
“Oh, yes, divine Pharaoh. Thank you for your concern, divine Pharaoh,” he replied, starting into another creaky bow. He held a bulky papyrus scroll cradled against his chest; the ribbons that tied it were slightly frayed, and the gilding on the outer layer was worn away in spots where his hands rested. Exactly where his hands rested, in fact, and Quatre guessed he’d been performing this ceremonial role for quite some time, carrying the exact same scroll in the exact same way.
Akhetsau bowed for the third time and turned around, planting himself squarely in front of the large double doors, and they all waited (with varying degrees of patience) through the next few fanfares. Then a different one sounded, becoming louder as the doors began to silently swing open, and the old man started forwards, unrolling the first section of the scroll as he did so. He didn’t look at it, instead staring straight ahead as he walked down the broad, shallow stairs beyond the door and raised his voice to recite.
"Bow now before Tutankanep, Light of the Sun, She Who Brings the Yor into Flood, Beloved of the Gods, Pharaoh…"
“Annnnnd here we go,” Christy muttered under her breath, moving forwards at a slow, regal pace. Her expression matched, calm and smiling slightly, but her tone of voice was somewhere between depressed and disgusted. “Brace yourselves, guys; we have about fifteen minutes of praise to me to listen to.”
“Great job for a narcissist, huh?” Duo whispered back.
“Yeah. Pity I’m not one.”
“Is he going to read that whole scroll?”
“He’s got it memorised,” she informed him, smile tightening.
Akhetsau angled to the left as he paced down the stairs, coming to a stop to one side of the last step. There was a low-backed throne directly in front of the door at the top of the stairs, and Christy’s dignified saunter started to angle to the right to pass it. “Quatre, you end up directly behind me,” she hissed quickly. “Spearbearers keep going and stop one step down, one on either side.”
“…Homage to thee, O glorious one, ruler of high and low, representative of the Gods in the world above…”
Colours shimmered across the large hall as the assembled dignitaries rose to bow, curtsey, genuflect or salute according to their various customs. Christy moved around to settle into her throne, stiffly upright with her hands flat on its arms, and Duo stifled a snicker as he stepped into place, holding his spear at the angle the Vizier had shown him.
“I’d love to see everyone’s faces if you were sitting the way you usually holy crap Mel’s naked!”
“Only half,” Christy purred, stifling a grin.
- - - - -
“Shed thy radiance upon us, O Pharaoh, glorious Tutankanep. Life! Prosperity! Health!”
Quatre was blushing. It probably wasn’t obvious to anyone else -- well, anyone who wasn’t one of the Gundam pilots and didn’t know him -- but Wufei could see his reddened cheeks even at a distance, and noted how the blond pilot was carefully keeping his gaze angled away from the Aotearoan delegation’s table. Duo wasn’t blushing, but he wasn’t looking away, either.
I gather Christy didn’t warn them, he thought, a little sourly, and then blinked as something occurred to him. Come to think of it, neither did I. Oops.
“…show your divine favour to those who are gathered before your light, O Pharaoh, descendant of Hor-aha, Djer, Djet…”
Speaking of warnings… He looked back at Mel and her aunt as they sat back down in the Aotearoan table’s centre seats. Mel’s posture practically oozed relaxation as she settled herself, leaning backwards, ankles crossed, right arm hooked over the back of the chair as she twisted herself slightly sideways to face the front of the room. Next to her, Ngaire was holding herself ramrod-straight, hands clasped primly on the table, probably doing her best to accentuate the difference between their attitudes. Wufei wished he could see her face. What is she going to do? Damn Mel and her dramatic tendencies anyway! Even if we can’t legally interfere, she could have told us what she expects!
Next to him, Asuka was holding his spear at the exact same angle as the Maori guards, glaring straight ahead. While it wasn’t exactly a professional look, he was at least restraining himself to a mild glare rather than his usual overtly homicidal expression, and given that Piripi Matua was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him it was probably the best that could be expected. Matua was watching Mel and Ngaire too, smirking faintly.
The old man with the scroll was still droning on through the list of Christy’s ancestors, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the sound of approximately a hundred people shifting their weight, coughing, and shuffling papers as they got comfortable again. The tables were arranged in a horseshoe configuration, all facing inwards towards an empty space, with each delegation’s guards lined up at positions of attention behind them. There were chairs for the guards a little further back, but presumably they didn’t get to sit down until after the greetings and whatever opening ceremonies were going to take place finished.
Directly across the room, Heero and Trowa were standing stiffly behind Jay’s chair, faces carefully blank though Wufei noted that they weren’t looking straight ahead. That would have directed their gazes straight at Mel. The table next to them was occupied by several Chinese -- no, here they were called Hanese -- with the young woman he’d been introduced to the night before sitting in the central seat. Tzu’s sister Jiao. If Jay’s babble about Appearances and counterparts can be believed, almost my sister. One of the sisters I might have had if events unfolded differently…
I wonder what it would have been like to not be an only child?
Further around the curve, Mil Warcraft was lounging elegantly in the Sanque Queendom delegation’s central seat, listening to the continuing recitation of names with an expression of polite attention. His appearance still sent a prickle of hostility up Wufei’s spine, but at least his formal uniform was a dark bluish grey, not the red and white of Zechs Merquise’s OZ. I’ve seen General Petrenkovich enough to get used to the idea that he’s not Treize Kushrenada, Wufei told himself firmly, making himself look away. I’ll get used to Warcraft. Both the Warcrafts.
Someone else was using the long recitation of Christy’s Pharaonic ancestors (still continuing -- how many generations did their records go back?!) as an opportunity to view the delegates, as Wufei discovered when a cameraman sidled across his field of view, pausing for a long shot of Mil. This is televised? It makes sense, I suppose--
Something caught his attention, and he snapped his eyes down to look at Ngaire again, tightening his grip on the box in his hands as his instincts shouted danger! He couldn’t understand why for a moment -- she hadn’t made any sudden moves, certainly hadn’t drawn a weapon -- and then he saw that the feathers in her hair were quivering, echoing the faint trembling of her tensed muscles. Her hands were clamped on the edge of the table, knuckles white, and she’d turned her head to stare fixedly at the scribe. The old man’s sing-song voice was slowing down.
“…Amenemhet the Twenty-Second, Senusert the Fourteenth, and Neferhotep the Third of hallowed memory, now seated in honour at the right hand of the Gods in the World Below. Revealed at birth by an avatar of Anubis as the true heir, speak and share thy wisdom, Beloved of the Gods, Pharaoh, Tutankanep!”
- - - - -
Christy stood, bracelets jingling as she clasped her hands in front of her waist and smiled at the delegates -- and for the cameras, one of which was about eight feet to her left and focussed directly on her face. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she began, letting her voice ring out in the hall’s excellent acoustics. “It is my great pleasure to welcome you all to the celebration of the eighth Alliance anniversary, commemorating the formation of the Omofoneea di Zakros.
“The countries you represent are all members of the Alliance, still standing against the Theodorians or awaiting the time when we have prevailed and your people can regain their homes,” she went on, turning her smile towards the Sanque, Tatarstan, and Han tables. Jiao inclined her head gracefully, Mil sketched a lazy acknowledging salute in her general direction, and Sergei managed to bow without either standing up or looking silly.
He’s lost weight, she realised, focussing on him, and almost fumbled the next line of her speech. Looking away hurriedly, she went on.
“We also acknowledge the contribution of those countries who, while joining with us in our battle, have not chosen to formally join the Alliance. While they are not represented here today, they are with us in spirit, and without their help we would be far worse off. I note specifically Glacis and Greater Gaul, whose Gundams fight alongside those built by Thera, Aotearoa, and the Vatera Kingdom--”
“--and the Franciscan Free State, whose mobile repair centres appear on so many battlefields. We are honoured by their friendship, as we are honoured by your attendance here today--”
“And someone here is not worthy of that honour!” a shrill voice cut in as Princess Ngaire catapulted to her feet.
- - - - -
Mel’s lazy grin widened. Here we go!
Christy was glaring, standing even straighter than before, and it was hard to tell if it was a Tutankanep how-dare-you-offend-Me-in-My-country glare or a Persephone damn-it-I-can’t-shoot-you-right-now glare. Perhaps it was both.
“…Princess Ngaire of Aotearoa,” Christy said after a chilly pause. “Do you have a reason for your… outburst… or did you just feel like interrupting?”
“This-- girl-- dishonours the ceremonies by her mere presence!” Ngaire snapped, stalking around the table to stand in the open space. Intended for delegates to make speeches from, it served perfectly well for her denouncement of her niece.
And I notice you’re controlled enough today to avoid saying ‘Pakeha brat’ or anything similar, Mel mused, turning slowly to look at her with one eyebrow theatrically raised. Racism doesn’t look too good in public, after all. Let’s see if I can get you a bit more wound up.
“Ashamed as I am to admit that she is related to me--”
“Oh, the feeling’s mutual, Auntie, I assure you,” Mel drawled, loud enough to be picked up by the cameras. Somebody snickered, quickly cut off but perfectly audible in the embarrassed silence.
“Shut up!” Ngaire hissed. “You won’t be laughing soon. You shame the Tangaroa name by existing!”
“Whereas you shame the Tangaroa name by being a sour, petty bitch,” Mel retorted cheerfully.
“How dare--” The older woman cut herself off and breathed in sharply through her nose, visibly controlling herself. The blue swirls on her tattooed chin puckered as she pressed her lips together, then stretched as she smiled nastily.
“You claim to be a warrior,” she said scornfully, gesturing towards Mel’s upper arms. “You wear the symbols and claim the privileges without accepting the duties or possessing the qualities needed. I say you are not a warrior, and I challenge you to a duel to prove your worth, here and now in the presence of your betters!”
Ha! I knew it! “Peers, Auntie dear, the correct phrase is ‘in the presence of my peers’,” Mel sighed, rolling her eyes theatrically. “It means ‘equals’, you know. Whatever. I suppose you have a champion already picked, hmm?”
“Naturally,” Ngaire smirked. She raised one hand in a beckoning motion, but the stocky man was already marching over to her, spear held in a ready position. His smirk matched her own. “Do you want to nominate a champion to take your place?”
“And prove you right? Hardly. What are your terms?”
“If-- when-- you lose, you admit that you are not worthy of the honours you have claimed, and you retire from public life,” Ngaire sneered. “Completely.”
“You surprise me, Auntie; I thought you’d go for a duel to the death,” Mel purred, smile widening. “I accept your terms, on one condition. The penalty for loss needs to be mutual.”
“--eh?” For the first time, Ngaire looked uncertain. “What do you mean?”
“If I lose, fine; I’ll retire from public life. And if your champion loses, so do you.”
“That’s ridiculous,” the older princess scoffed. “My worth isn’t in doubt! You’re just trying to get me to withdraw the challenge.”
“Bullshit,” Mel said bluntly, and had the satisfaction of seeing her aunt blush angrily. “You know perfectly well there’s no such thing as a legal duel without mutual risk, under Aotearoan law. If there’s no penalty for you whether you win or lose, you can just swan around issuing challenges right and left to get your own way, and that is not how it works, Auntie dear. If you lose, you take the same punishment you’re trying to inflict on me, or else I’m just going to refuse your challenge and we’ll see what Aunt Whina says about our respective worth. Need I remind you that as head of the family she gave permission for every one of my tattoos, including the ones you don’t think I deserve? Hmm?”
Ngaire stuttered, searching for words. “You-- th-that’s not--”
“Ngaire-hine,” Piripi Matua said calmly. “Don’t worry. She’s bluffing.”
She looked back and forth between him and Mel, visibly hesitating, then drew herself up stiffly and nodded. “Fine. I agree. Mutual penalty.”
I’ve got you now. Mel could feel her grin widening, showing more teeth, and let it. “Lovely. I assume your chosen weapon is that taiaha?”
“Of course. Traditional weapons only, in duels.” He hefted the spear, eyeing her measuringly. “Would you like a recess while you send someone to fetch an appropriate weapon? You can’t use one of those,” he added, jerking his chin towards the fragile spears held by the ceremonial guards.
“Not necessary,” she said brightly, and snapped her fingers. “Wufei!”
- - - - -
Mel didn’t move as Wufei stepped forwards to lay the wrapped box down on the table, setting it precisely in front of her, and now Matua was frowning slightly.
“Lady Tutankanep,” Mel called without shifting her gaze from her opponent. “I wish to apologise on behalf of the Aotearoan ruling family for my aunt’s incredibly rude behaviour. If she really felt that letting me represent our country at these ceremonies was too terrible a sacrilege to be permitted, she could have issued her challenge at the Embassy. I’m sorry that she wanted to embarrass me publicly and chose to disrupt the proceedings herself.”
“No apology necessary,” Christy replied, waving one hand dismissively as she sank back onto her throne. “The ceremony is hereby suspended and will be reconvened after you issue your beatdown.”
There was a stunned silence for a couple of breaths as everyone present assimilated what she’d just said, and then laughter and talk broke out all around the chamber. Akhetsau wobbled precariously, turning to stare aghast at his Pharaoh, and behind her throne Mernetefnut covered his eyes with one hand, shoulders shaking. At the Tatarstan delegation’s table, Sergei had sunk his head into his hands and was giggling hysterically.
“Do sit down, Aunt Ngaire,” Mel said, poisonously sweet. “This won’t take long.”
Wufei stood back a pace and watched as Mel toed off her sandals under the table, ignoring Ngaire as she slowly resumed her seat, clearly unsure as to how she’d lost control of the situation. The guards she’d brought were looking uncertain, while the guards Ambassador Harawira had assigned to accompany Mel were looking worried.
Asuka was grinning. Matua looked at him, looked back at Mel, then looked at Wufei, frowning. He can’t work out why we’re not worried, Wufei realised. He can think of a reason why we might not be worried, but he’s still stuck on the idea that Mel’s incompetent and bluffing… He smiled thinly at Matua, who blinked and looked away.
Mel flicked out the pin fastening her feather cloak and held the garment out to one side without looking. Wufei stepped forward again and took it out of her hand, draping it carefully over his arm. Sitting up straight, she pulled aside the cloth folds shrouding what turned out to be a carved wooden box inlaid with iridescent blue-green pieces of shell, and Ngaire hissed in shock.
“You have that?! How-- did you steal it?!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mel snorted, carefully lifting the top off with both hands. “Aunt Whina gave it into my custody five years ago.”
“Why?!” Ngaire almost wailed.
“Because she judged me worthy,” Mel said wryly, and lifted a flat green stone out of the box.
It was some sort of club, shaped like a flattened teardrop about forty centimetres long, ten wide, and perhaps three thick-- no, not a club, because the top and sides were polished to a sharp edge, Wufei saw, not understanding why Matua had gone pale and stepped back. Well, she said it’s sacred; it must be recognisable? It looked like cloudy jade, the same stone she and Ngaire were wearing as ornaments, and had a woven thong tied through a hole in the narrow end. Mel wound the thong around her hand and clasped the weapon’s haft with a practiced motion as she stood up, expression serious now as she walked out to face her opponent.
“I-- I can’t fight you if you’re using that!” Matua protested, backing away further. “I can’t touch it!”
“Don’t worry about that,” Mel assured him. “Ngaire and I may be the only people here with sufficient mana to pick it up without being cursed, but getting hit by it doesn’t count.”
“But if you parry with it and I break it--”
“That’ll be on my head. Piripi-- it is Piripi, isn’t it?” He nodded dumbly, and she smiled thinly at him. “Yes, this is Hine-nui-o-te-paua, one of the mere pounamu of the Ngati Paoa tribe, a hereditary treasure of the Tangaroa family and so on and so forth. Yes, it will be a tragedy if it breaks, but it’s a weapon of war; breaking in battle is a good way for it to go, and quite frankly your taiaha is far more likely to break first. And you don’t have the leisure to worry about it, because I am about to try to remove your head from your shoulders using it. If you refuse to fight me because you don’t want to oppose my weapon you will have to forfeit this duel, and Aunt Ngaire will go down with you.”
“That’s what you want, isn’t it?” Ngaire screeched, standing up again. “You’re only using that to put him at a disadvantage, to put me at a disadvantage! Shameless Pakeha bitch!”
“I’m using it to prove I can,” Mel said flatly, not looking at her. “If I really was what you say I am, I wouldn’t be able to touch this, let alone pick it up. Legend says it rejects unworthy hands, Aunt; do you want to try?”
“How dare you use such a treasure to advance your own--”
“Shut up and sit down, Ngaire!” Mel yelled, so forcefully that her aunt rocked back on her heels. “You’ve got what you thought you wanted, haven’t you? Too bad it hasn’t turned out to be the automatic victory you expected! Now quit whining and watch!”
“I will not be silenced!”
“Yes you will,” an icy-cold voice said from behind and to Wufei’s left. Startled, he and Ngaire both turned around to see Asuka staring at her with deadly intent.
“If I’m not allowed to interfere with their fight, then neither are you,” he hissed. One hand lifted off the spear shaft, twitched, and a thin knife-blade glinted in the lights for a moment before vanishing. “Like she said, you started this shit. Now you have to sit down and see where it takes you.”
“You wouldn’t,” Ngaire gulped, paling.
- - - - -
Christy was sitting with her chin propped on her left fist, right hand drumming out staccato rhythms on the armrest of her throne.
“D’you think anyone would complain if I just took her out with a throwing knife right now?” she muttered, shifting her hand to hide her lips.
“I wouldn’t,” Quatre gulped, trying not to be obvious about leaning on the back of the throne. “She feels really, really horrible.”
“I think Asuka’s considering it,” Duo said uncertainly.
Dan smirked. “Ah, mon cher sauvage,” he said happily. “He always has the right word-- er, blade-- in the right place.”
“Asuka’s such a good boy,” Christy told him.
Mernetefnut sidled up from behind and bent to whisper in her ear. “Ah… my Pharaoh, may I suggest that you order some guards to stop this? It’s hardly appropriate--”
“Not in a million years, Uncle-Cousin, and I’ll countermand you if you try it yourself,” she snapped, keeping her voice low. “By Aotearoan law, this is legal, and as members of the Alliance their law applies to their citizens in any other Alliance country, am I right?”
“Ah… yes, but--”
“Plus Mel will throw an entirely justified hissyfit if you spoil this for her. No, Uncle-Cousin.”
He sighed. “Very well, my Pharaoh.”
“Tell you what I will do, though,” she added as he began to step away. “The moment this is over, Ngaire Tangaroa is persona non grata in Ta-Resu-Meht, and I want her deported on the first flight back to Aotearoa. Have one chartered if there isn’t a convenient one already scheduled. And you can start composing a message to Uncle Janus for me to sign and seal, telling him what I’ve done and politely requesting that he revoke her diplomatic immunity throughout all of the Theran Empire.”
“Yes, my Pharaoh. Even if her champion wins?”
Christy snorted. “As if. But yes, win or lose. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean that doing it here and now isn’t a personal insult to me. The champion doesn’t have to be deported, though; he’s just a tool, and anyway he’s going to need hospitalisation.”
Mernetefnut blinked at her. “You seem very sure.”
She grinned up at him, an expression that was all Persephone. “Wanna bet on it? Ten to one says Mel splatters him across the floor.”
“Er… on reflection, no, my Pharaoh.”
Duo snickered. “Smart man.”
- - - - -
Mel shifted her feet, testing their grip against the smooth polished floor. Matua hadn’t taken off his woven sandals, and she kept her expression blank with an effort. Shows how much of a fight he thought I was going to put up, she thought scornfully. Well, I suppose it’s not his fault if he believed what Ngaire told him, but still! Talk about careless.
The haft of Hine-nui-o-te-paua was warm in her hand. She hadn’t ever practiced with it -- despite what she’d said to Matua, she’d been too afraid of damaging it -- but it was almost the same weight and heft as her practice mere, the one she didn’t let anyone see her work with. I can fight like this. The question is, can he?
Matua took a deep breath, resettling his hands on his taiaha’s shaft, and nodded to her. “Very well… Hine,” he said, and the title sounded sincere. “Shall we?”
Good. This wouldn’t be any fun otherwise, and Ngaire’s cronies would have bitched about unfair advantages until they died of old age. She smiled at him and slid into a crouch, left hand forward ready to grab or parry, right hand back with the mere poised to strike. “Let’s.”
His first moves were tentative, testing her reaction speed, and hers were similarly cautious. He can shift his weapon around fast, but his footwork’s slow, she decided, slapping away a half-hearted thrust and nearly getting a grip on the taiaha’s collar before he jerked it out of reach. All solid and grounded, which is good in its place, but he’s got no fluidity and he’s reluctant to change stances. ‘Course, he outweighs me by about half…
They were circling each other warily, and Matua suddenly turned his taiaha crosswise and lunged forwards, trying to push her back and pin her against one of the tables. She ducked under the weapon and rolled, uncurling just enough to strike at his legs as they passed, and bit back a yelp as he swung down and caught her across the ribs. It hurt, and she knew she’d have an impressive bruise later, but as she bounced to her feet and he turned to follow her she saw that he was limping. A trickle of blood ran down his right calf from where Hine-nui-o-te-paua’s edge had caught him, and she grinned. First blood to me.
He paused, glancing down, and lifted the head of his taiaha to her in a small, ironic salute. “Not bad,” he admitted. “I apologise for underestimating you.”
“Everyone does,” she chuckled. “Apology accepted.”
The delegates were hastily vacating the table he’d nearly pushed her into, and nearby delegations seemed to be following their example, scrambling out of harm’s way. The cameramen were braver, scuttling in close to get a better shot, and she frowned, holding up her left hand in a ‘pause’ gesture to Matua. “Oi, you!” she snapped, waving the closest cameraman off. “Give us some room, will you? No, behind the tables thank you very much! --That’s better. Sorry about that,” she went on, turning back to Matua and dropping back into stance. “I don’t want to win because you tripped over somebody else.”
He grinned, suddenly looking much younger. “Neither do I. Apology not necessary.”
He came at her with a yell, striking low so she couldn’t roll out of the way again, and the next few minutes were a blur of attacks, parries, dodges, and the occasional kick. His legwork wasn’t great, but his spear technique was admirable, and the kick she landed in his gut was quickly answered by the butt of his taiaha smacking her left elbow, numbing it and sending pins and needles up to her shoulder. She shifted stance to lead with her right, and he lowered his weapon to better guard his stomach.
Hm. She feinted at his knees, and he shifted his taiaha down to block. Another feint, and another shift. Another…
Mel spun and thrust at his eyes, straight from the shoulder, and he paled as he realised that he’d dropped his guard too far. Unable to bring his weapon up fast enough, he compromised by ducking down and backwards, overbalanced as one foot slid on the polished marble, and grunted as her bare foot landed on his rising forearm. She used his movement to augment her own leap and somersaulted over him like a gymnast, going nearly to her knees on landing, then uncoiled backwards, one leg lashing out in a kick with all her strength behind it.
Her heel struck him in the small of his back with a horrible crunching noise, and he went over onto his face, taiaha rolling out of his hands as he smacked down on the hard flagstones. Mel spun, bringing her weapon down in a broad sweep, edge scything towards his unprotected temple--
--and stopped, flat stone blade hovering a hair’s breadth away from Matua’s head. He didn’t react; blood trickled from where he’d split his chin open on the stones, and his eyes rolled up as he passed out. Breathing hard, Mel stepped back, straightening up and flexing her left arm to bring the feeling back.
“I think you won,” Christy said dryly, voice cutting across the hushed silence.
“I think I did,” Mel agreed, grinning. Ngaire slumped in her chair, staring in disbelief at her champion, unconscious and bleeding on the floor.
“Yes, my Pharaoh,” the Vizier replied, bowing deeply, and waved forwards a pair of guards from the wall. He walked with them across the floor to where Ngaire was sitting, and dipped his head perfunctorily to her. “Princess Ngaire Tangaroa?”
She raised her head and blinked dazedly at him, but didn’t speak.
“Lady Tutankanep, Beloved of the Gods, Pharaoh of Ta-Resu-Meht, has spoken,” he said clearly. The delegates hushed again, watching this new development. “Her light is turned away from you. She recognises you not. You are no longer welcome in Her country, and She gives you notice to leave. Now.”
Christy sighed happily, leaning on her elbow. “He’s so eloquent sometimes.”
End of Warped Mirrors
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