We of Stockholm
"Dimitri," a male voice began warily, "why is there a groupie huddled in front of the Conference Room?"
His ear-piece donning associate exhaled, exasperated. "That groupie is Prime Minister Waltz' private bodyguard."
"But," the black-suited man narrowed his eyes, "that's…wait…you're saying…"
"You are meeting Sergeant Rei Ashing in the flesh," Dimitri adjusted his holstered gun territorially.
"But this Rei Ashing is a girl."
"So Rei is not a man."
Dimitri ran a goaded hand on the back of his neck. "Obviously not."
The two Secret Service agents continued gawking incredulously at the lanky teenaged girl who had fallen asleep in front of the White House's Conference Room. Her lightly tanned complexion was partially obscured by a curtain of dyed black hair, but from beneath the dark locks, the two men could make out an innocent round face.
"Is that it?" Dimitri's colleague blurted, still shocked. "That's all he brought with him? This tiny thing?"
"I hear his chauffer is also trained for combat," Dimitri said in his deadpan manner.
"That's reckless! Now I'm not being sexist or anything, but she's obviously unsuitable for the job! I mean, the damn thing is asleep! Who sleeps on duty?" roared the Secret Service agent.
Rei Ashing, wrapped in a ridiculously baggy black leather jacket, snored softly, her chain-engulfed combat boots occasionally making clinking noises as she switched sleeping positions. Although Rei appeared completely taken by slumber in her defenseless fetal position, she was perfectly conscious of the level of threat surrounding her.
The men squatted and examined the Canadian legend whose miraculous stories had circulated south to American defense personnel. Dimitri prodded Rei with the base of his taser gun.
Level of threat? Low.
From behind the tall brown doors, there was a squeaking of chairs being pushed in and a series of low murmurs.
The two Secret Service agents reassumed their positions next to the entrance of the Conference Room as the doors slowly swung open, revealing President Larry Etchford and Prime Minister Harold Waltz.
"President Etchford," they greeted solemnly. "Prime Minister Waltz."
However, they instantly realized that a third softer voice had joined in. Dimitri snapped his neck to the left of him and caught sight of a slender girl dressed in black. Her muted green eyes remained cemented on Prime Minister Waltz' face. The barrel of a rifle peeked out from under the hem of her jacket.
"So this is Sergeant Rei Ashing. It's certainly a surprise, but an honour to finally meet you! The army personnel speak very highly of you."
Rei gave a slight bob of her head and offered a tiny smile. "The pleasure's all mine."
"I hear you were a prodigy at the RMC and graduated with distinction when you were fifteen. Though, nothing awed me more than the fact that you were immediately enlisted by the Desert Phoenix Division. I heard their Northern Federation reconnaissance was made successful by your help," the President gushed, his grey-framed face beamed with excitement.
The Desert Phoenix Division was a reconnaissance faction that specialized in gaining information through rather aggressive means. The instantaneous employment of Rei Ashing into this esteemed group was due to her uncanny ability to wield a sniper rifle. It was also rumoured that their N. F. mission had concluded with Rei being the only person on the Division that was required to draw a weapon. She had fired three shots during the reconnaissance and all of them had hit.
Rei abruptly curtsied. "I have excellent luck."
"She's wearing a skirt!" the other Secret Service agent hissed to Dimitri in utter disbelief.
"I picked it out," Prime Minister Waltz told them with a conspirator wink.
Harold Waltz was the complete opposite of Larry Etchford. He had a full set of healthy brown hair, a prominent jaw line, and the enviable figure of a trained athlete. At the age of thirty-two, he was not only the youngest individual to assume the role of the Prime Minister of Canada, but, based on a survey conducted by People Magazine, the most attractive.
Dimitri sent a hardened stare in Rei's direction. Drawing his own conclusions, he finally realized how such an unprofessional teenaged girl was allowed to be the sole bodyguard of the Prime Minister.
"Well, then, I guess I'll see you, Larry, at the dinner ball on the seventh," Waltz grinned, as if speaking to an old friend.
Etchford blinked once, slightly taken aback. "I'm looking forward to it…Harold."
"Until then," Waltz sent Rei a wink. "We're leaving, Ashing."
"Yes, sir," she replied monotonously.
Dimitri spat out some air when Waltz and his bodyguard reached the end of the hall. Larry Etchford cast his Secret Service agents a calm glance. He motioned for them to follow him, as he retreated to the direction of his office.
"Feeling threatened?" the President of the United States seemed to revert into a character unlike the person who had greeted the able-bodied Prime Minister.
Dimitri tilted his face and pretended to be engrossed with the scenery through the towering windows. "I don't know what you're referring to, sir."
"I haven't seen her in action myself," Etchford straightened his black and grey pinstripe tie, "but I honestly don't doubt her abilities. Don't let her attire fool you."
Dimitri remained silent, his electric blue eyes flickered back to Etchford's face.
The President popped a cigarette into his mouth and lit it with a red, white, and blue lighter. He smirked at Dimitri, blowing a ring of smoke rebelliously towards a smoke detector.
"The New Epoch starts and ends with America. I will not be ruined by an adolescent military prodigy."
Dimitri rubbed the spiky dirty blond stubble that was the result of being at the President's every beck and call. "Canada's not even a forerunner in politics anymore, sir. I don't mean to be presumptuous, but it would be Canada's folly for attempting anything as large scale as an assassination."
Larry Etchford abruptly halted his steps and stood gazing out of one of the windows with his vein-adorned hands on his slim hips. He absent-mindedly rolled his lit cigarette in his fingers, letting the charred pieces flutter to the floor.
He let out a throaty chuckle. "I suppose you're right. I mean, the Prime Minister did come personally to request an invitation to the peace conference. I shouldn't waste my time with that sad little place."
"Not at all, Mr. President!" the other agent agreed and Dimitri sent him an annoyed glare.
"Lovely," the President smirked. "Perfect. Dimitri, get me connected with the French president. We have to go over the menu for the seventh."
"Of course, Mr. President."
* * *
On December Seventh, the Canadian Prime Minister stood in front of a full-length mirror in the bedroom of his Continental Suite at a five-star hotel. He tilted his face and studied how his perfect complexion looked in various lightings.
Harold Waltz whirled around, putting out both his arms, and grinned charmingly. "How do I look, honey?"
Rei, who had momentarily fallen asleep on the charcoal grey recliner, blinked. "Great."
Waltz observed the eighteen-year-old, as her eyelids squeezed together again. He exhaled serenely and a mischievous smile graced his lips.
"This is highly inappropriate, Mr. Waltz," Rei spoke up without so much as opening her eyes.
The Prime Minister didn't bother retracting the right arm that was put strategically next to her "sleeping" face. He only leaned in closer, retrieving his left hand from his pant pockets to brush her ebony bangs away from her face.
"What am I going to do with you?" he whispered with his lips only an inch from her left cheek.
"I have only one purpose," Rei's green eyes flashed open, "and that is to safeguard your life, Mr. Waltz."
He rubbed his thumb idly against her chin. "So I'll be Mr. Waltz forever?"
"You'll be choosing the right decision by calling your wife now, Mr. Waltz," his youthful bodyguard advised.
His stubborn fingers refused to part from her face. The Prime Minister searched the contours of her circular visage, hoping to salvage something from her shrouded expression. However, Rei's reply to his efforts was another prolonged blink.
"Yes, yes," Waltz sighed as he pushed off the recliner and he made his way to the room telephone like a disheartened child. "Ah, oui, bonjour. Je voudrais…"
Rei got up, as well, and respectfully retreated into the living room. Through the nine feet tall windows, Paris glimmered eagerly below; the dark horizon behind the city was penetrated by the dots of street lights and steady headlights following the winding roads. The Eiffel Tower broke into the solemn navy blue skyline in glittering majesty.
The youngest sergeant in Canadian history couldn't figure out how such an odd relationship with her charge had developed. It was quite obvious to them both that Rei hadn't the least bit of interest in the handsome Prime Minister who had been presented on the cover of last month's issue of Vanity Fair in only unbuttoned black dress pants. Despite her polite declination to his advances, Harold Waltz appeared to be taken by her very presence.
Having been raised in a family of militants and medical officers, Rei had stopped thinking of herself as a female when she had picked up her first semi-automatic handgun when she was eight. Her sole goal since her childhood was to serve her country and uphold the Ashings' stern sense of patriotism. To put it very simply, the youngest of the four Ashing siblings had no time for feelings.
Two years in the Desert Phoenix Division did wonders to a soldier.
Harold Waltz appeared in the doorway to the bedroom. She turned from the window and saw the low-cut wine-red dress in his hands. He had a sheepish grin on as he placed the expensive garment on the sofa.
"Come on, you have to do this much for me. Please?"
"I can't protect you in a gown, Mr. Waltz," Rei almost sighed exasperatedly.
The Prime Minister pouted.
Rei shut her eyes, mildly frustrated. "If something happens tonight consider me conveniently handicapped."
Then Waltz was behind her and he planted a gentle kiss against her temple. "That's fine with me."
She knew that that was going to happen since she had already been alerted by the sudden shift of his body. She knew that he had stopped approximately fifteen centimetres away and had swooped down at a fifty degree angle towards her head. Though, Rei, for some reason unknown to her, hadn't evaded it by taking three quick steps to her left.
"If that's what you want," Rei slinked over to the sofa and retrieved the dress. "This reduces our survival rate to about ninety percent."
"Still an A," Harold Waltz grinned.
"Reckless," she mumbled under her breath.
* * *
"Il est Harold Waltz!" an enthralled female French onlooker gushed. "Prenez son photo! Vite!"
"Mais, qui est…?"
However, the bewildered paparazzi commenced snapping pictures anyway. Canadian Prime Minister Harold Waltz greeted the press charmingly and waved to the concession gathered in a semi-circle in front of the hotel hosting the peace conference.
Rei scanned their surroundings, feeling vulnerable in her three inch heels. Her steady hands fell upon the discreet leather holster holding her Para-Ordnance P14-45 model from the Common Era, which offered a considerable amount of comfort to her less than stable ankles. A tingling sensation ran up the right side of her neck and her peripherals caught sight of a dark mass.
"Level of threat has risen," Rei breathed out, "substantially."
Instinctively, she edged closer to Prime Minister Waltz and kept her right hand pressed against her fake forearm bandages that concealed a thin dagger.
Coming about ninety degrees from her left was the Fuhrer of the Northern Federation and his three body guards. The guards wore simple navy suits over white dress shirts and severe crimson ties. To the naked eye, they appeared completely unarmed, and even inattentive, but Rei knew better since she too had often adopted the same aloof stare to trick her enemies.
"Lodovico Kaiser," Waltz' solemn tone caught Rei off guard. "The Great and Terrible Fuhrer, they call him. He had swept northern Europe off their feet at the end of the Common Era. Conquered the countries from Norway to Russia. He had taken them from the skies."
"Stay close, Mr. Waltz," Rei reminded him, and herself, after being momentarily distracted by his small talk.
"But nothing disturbs me more than his god-awful moustache," the prime minister laughed, breaking the tense atmosphere.
"Harold!" President Etchford's voice came from behind them. "Sergeant Ashing! I trust that France has been accommodating?"
"Absolutely!" Waltz grabbed the American president in a bear hug. "Nothing pleases a man more than wine, cheese, and French women."
Rei saw Dimitri appear from behind Etchford and he acknowledged her with an uneasy nod. She didn't need to follow his intent gaze to know who was encouraging his hand to remain on the handle of his gun that was hidden by his black suit jacket.
"You'll be doing the president a favour by retracting your hand from your jacket," Rei advised.
Dimitri tossed her an irritated side glance. "Unlike a certain ex-militant, I do not take my responsibilities lightly."
"It is also a guard's responsibility not to disclose the placement of his weapon," she countered flatly.
"The contrary," Dimitri fired back, "the existence of a mysterious weapon will make the enemy less likely to attack."
"Upward palm two inches from your armpit-" Rei responded.
"-pushes the gun against the strap of your holster. A side swipe over your left breast will cause the gun to crush your lung and leave you momentarily disorientated. The gun will then loosen, giving anyone the opportunity to seize your weapon and use it against you."
Rei took her eyes off Waltz for a split second to bore her ominous orbs into Dimitri's assurance. "I could have you disarmed in seven seconds and you would be dead in ten."
Dimitri stubbornly transferred his right hand from beneath his jacket to his right pant pocket. His eyes never left the Fuhrer's dangerous trio.
"Then how do you expect to defend against those things," he allowed his composure to slip, as his blue eyes narrowed.
"You don't. You run," Rei said, but she said it more to herself.
The young sergeant followed Prime Minister Waltz to the table that he was sharing with Australia, which was another country succumbing to the constant economical, political, and ethical pressures of the New Epoch. At the sight of Waltz, the Prime Minister of Australia exhaled and sat up rigidly. A faint glisten of shame reached the man's eyes.
"Well, I suppose not everyone can be that glad to see me," Waltz whispered to Rei.
She brought her chair closer to her charge and began assessing the gathering for potential threats.
"Australia has been hoping for a promotion," the PM continued quietly, chewing on a slice of baguette from the bread basket, "but sitting with Canada means he's nothing more than storage facility for resources."
A tingling in Rei's spine forced her to ignore Waltz's words and, instead, to note the most advantageous spots to hide the Prime Minister and to pick off any unsuspecting threats. Her eyes moved meticulously, calculating the angles she would have to shoot and the damage that each bullet would cause.
"Second floor pillar. No obstruction. Fatal," she muttered.
"Potted plant near kitchen doors. Shoulder or leg shots. Behind the knees. Paralysis."
Harold Waltz's jovial expression left his face, as he watched Rei's eyes and lips move rapidly. The poise in both her posture and her features never wavered. He knew these moments well. They appeared as they sat outdoors at a café sipping lattés, as they strolled through the corridors of the hotel, and even as they passed time in the safety of their suite.
"Left and right food trolley. Interrupting shot. Disarm."
Those animal instincts, this God-given gift of hers, which dulled the vivacity that this eighteen-year-old should be exuding. Those slender fingers, scarred by her years on the field, that knew their way so effortlessly around a gun. Those round moss green eyes that could read every human physicality to a tee.
It was a curse.
She would pave the way to her demise and, when that time would come, he would never be able to forgive himself.
"Stop it," the Prime Minister reached out to grip her arm, hoping to shake her back to reality.
However, Rei, sensing the change in the air, turned her body around and caught his wrist. Her elbow grazed the table slightly and the silver cutlery jangled. A salt shaker fell onto its side with a soft "thock".
He felt her offensive grip burn into his skin, as his hazel eyes watched Rei's human soul drop back into her body. The Australian Prime Minister and his two guards fell silent.
Rei immediately withdrew her hand. "Sorry."
"Don't be," he quickly faced forward in his seat and played with his platinum wedding band. "I should be the one apologizing. You were just doing your job."
His last few words were lost in a defeated mumble.
She looked at Prime Minister Waltz with an unseen curiosity. Despite giving off a deflated mood, the handsome leader was a solid man to behold. His simple black suit and unruly hair reminded Rei of his usual charming and attention-grabbing self. Although his country's position in politics had been demoted to become a stronghold of renewable resources, Harold Waltz was a still a man that the world had to stop and listen to.
"Harold Waltz will change this world, I promise you that," Colonel Joseph Herr had told her that fateful day she was discharged from the Desert Phoenix Division. "He will tear down what the New Epoch has made of us and rebuild a place that our children's children will feel safe in. That's why you have to protect him, Sergeant Ashing, with everything you have."
Rei Ashing, with a rare bitterness, had replied, "Prime Minister Waltz is an ignorant, frivolous, and irresponsible human being. His death will not be a huge lost."
"Rei Ashing, you will be serving your country by keeping him alive!"
"Colonel Herr, the Ashings work the field! We do not excel in the arts of babysitting! You are making a big mistake!"
A crimson flush had reached the Colonel's cheeks, as his rough, wrinkled hands slammed against the desk. "There is no mistake in giving the youngest Ashing a lesson in compassion! You will guard the Prime Minister and that's an order!"
Rei gave the PM's hand a quick tap and managed a half-distracted smile before her attention wandered off again. Harold Waltz glanced at the girl's fair profile, then to his hand, and then back to her face, which was framed by long black curls.
Waltz allowed a soft sigh to escape his lips before turning away almost in embarrassment. "They really should have sent me that male bodyguard."
The lights of the hall suddenly dimmed and a familiar silhouette stepped regally onto the stage. Four Secret Service agents, including Dimitri, evenly spaced themselves out in a line only a metre in front of the raised platform. The American president smiled broadly, the laugh lines etched in his face seemed to help him radiate a calming fatherly aura.
The media press was immediately captivated.
"Your Majesties, your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Members of the Press, my Friends: it is my privilege and pleasure to welcome you all to the tenth annual New Epoch Peace Conference. Without this honourable assembly, peace after the Third World War would have never been made possible. And for this, I offer you my sincerest thanks and my deepest gratitude," Etchford paused to majestically scan the audience.
The New Epoch Peace Conference had been, after the bloody conclusion of World War Three, a symbol of restoration and harmony. During the final leg of the war that had spanned over a little more than half a decade, dignitaries from around the world gathered in a single building and witnessed each others' solemn faces that had all been touched by death and despair. Authorities from countries that had feuded had come together to mourn and cry for those who had been lost. Everyone had thought that these tears, which had been broadcasted on televisions across the world, would cure the hate that had killed the Common Era along with more than half a million people.
However, soon acute citizens realized that those swollen red eyes and dampened cheeks were not enough to quell the darkness and greediness of human nature. It was true that the war had ended with the peace conference and that the New Epoch was an age that did not begin with fighting and fatalities. Despite these facts, no one could prevent the continuing obsession for power and authority.
When years separated the present from the memories of the Third World War, people began to forget what the peace conference truly stood for. They began to forget what could result from the hunger for control. They began to forget the amount of blood that had been shed and amount of tears that had been cried. That was when the New Epoch Peace Conference transformed and took the appearance of a congregation where politicians came to show off their statuses and their nation's might.
The word "peace", had once again lost its meaning; the term had once again been made a pleasant accessory to an eloquent sentence.
A rubbing of satin cloth and the soft clinking of silverware caught Prime Minister Waltz' attention. His eyes quickly darted to his left saw a pair of black pumps placed perfectly parallel to the legs of the chair. The PM sighed when he felt a presence perched behind him.
"Rei," he whispered. "Sit down."
Rei did not reply. Her body remained erect and her green eyes never ceased to move. Something, she sensed, was out there in the midst of the dimly lit hall. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was about to go wrong.
"Sir," Rei interrupted him evenly. "I did not come here to be your date. My job is to protect you from harm."
Waltz stared stonily at the saucer of tomato bisque that was placed in front of him. "My apologies, Sergeant."
"…through years and years of anguish. However, by placing the peace and tranquility of the world above all else, the New Epoch is and will be able to witness a restoration of faith in all mankind. That is why today we-"
Suddenly Rei realized what was wrong. Her frantic eyes searched every table for the Fuhrer and his three guards.
"Kaiser's gone," she breathed and immediately she directed her gaze to the dark crevices of the upper level that led to the expanse of elevators.
She saw a dark figure dart behind a golden pillar. Suddenly she became painfully aware of long black smudge protruding slightly from behind a potted plant.
Her instincts sent off a burst of adrenaline through her body, as her arms shot out towards the prime minister.
"Mr. Waltz, get down!"
At that moment, the whistle of a silenced gunshot, accented by the acoustics of the hall, was heard.
As if in slow motion, Rei witnessed a bullet tear through Larry Etchford's left chest and he toppled over instantly. She saw Dimitri and the other Secret Service agents catapulting their bodies over the stage towards the fallen president, attempting to shield him from further attacks.
No more than five seconds had elapsed before Rei and Waltz were under the table with her handgun drawn.
The screams of frightened people resonated throughout the hall. Rei watched waitresses, hotel attendants, and members of the press flee the hotel in a panic. A few individuals had fallen down in the chaos and their pleas for help were ignored as the terrified crowds surged over them. There were a few more gun shots that sounded sporadic and did not appear to hit anyone.
"They want disarray," Rei quickly assessed the situation, as she cut into her gown with a steak knife that had fallen off the table. "Mr. Waltz."
"Yes," he answered shakily.
She bit into the red fabric and tore off the train, exposing her legs below her knees.
"I'm going to need you to hide behind that food trolley. Keep your back against the wall," she ordered calmly. "When I tell you to run, you take that food trolley and run to the kitchen door."
"Rei-," Mr. Waltz began anxiously.
"Just do as I say," Rei bore her eyes into his and her lips set in a determined line. "Don't worry, I'll be right behind you."
The PM clenched his jaws and nodded rigidly.
"Rei's a tough one," Colonel Herr's voice echoed in his mind. "She's detached and hates to admit defeat. She once carried out a three-day mission with a sprained ankle and a swollen wrist. No one knew a thing. They had just assumed she was trying to train her left hand."
The Colonel's words continued to play in his head, as he responded to Rei's signal and dashed behind a food trolley that was filled with bread and butter.
"She has had to endure a lot. There aren't many people who would respect an eighteen-year-old female sergeant. But there are reasons why she's gotten so far and why elite members of the military have agreed to work with her. If there was anyone that could take you to Hell and back, it would be her."
And with the downward swing of Rei's arm, Mr. Waltz grabbed the front and back of the trolley and started his crouched sprint towards the swinging oak doors. Rei raised her handgun and fired two shots that went straight through the foreheads of two masked men descending the spiral staircase almost forty feet away.
"Of all the Ashings I've met," Colonel Herr's chuckle had a hint of regret, "she is the most relentless. It's too bad since she's so damn adorable."
The prime minister heard a bullet ricochet off a metal surface near him and his legs faltered, as he tried to look for Rei over the trolley.
"Keep running!" she yelled, as she shot another masked assailant, who had attempted to avenge his fallen comrades.
A sense of relief washed over Waltz, but it was soon diminished when he swerved around the body of a cameraman, who had been trampled unconscious in the midst of the madness.
"Don't slow down!" Rei knew that Waltz was the kind of person who would stop to save his fellow man, but Rei wasn't concerned with the life of others, or even her own for that matter.
Her mission was to protect Prime Minister Waltz and keep him alive.
And that was what she was going to do.
"Follow me through the doors!" Rei instructed.
With her gun raised, she barreled past the swinging doors. There was a blur of brown and silver, as the doors parted. On the other side, however, a group of men donning ski masks were waiting for her with their weapons drawn as well.
"Mr. Waltz-!" she tried to warn the PM, but he had already charged into the kitchen.
"Miss, I believe we have you surrounded," a taunting voice said in flawless English.
"Mr. Waltz, stay behind the trolley," Rei planted her feet firmly into the ground and faced her opposition squarely.
The Fuhrer's three bodyguards appeared behind the masked men. Their hands all hovered over a handgun and their eyes calculated her every twitch and breath.
"Throw away your weapon and put your hands up," the brown haired guard ordered her.
Rei in a composure that was unnatural to her circumstances, slid her pistol across the tiled floor, straightened up, and lifted her arms over her head.
"Some of our men said that you're a pretty good shot," he picked up her gun and inspected it idly. "How old are you?"
"Eighteen," she responded flatly.
Handing off her weapon to one of his masked accomplices, the guard inched towards her with a smug expression. "A big mistake on your nation's part. It's as if they sent their prime minister to die."
"What do you want?" Rei demanded.
He ran a nonchalant hand through his tousled hair and cupped her chin with his left hand. "Don't worry, sweetheart-"
However, before he could finish his sentence Rei loosened the bandages over her arm and retrieved her knife in a single fluid motion. Her left hand darted out and seized his outstretched arm, pulling him towards her body. She angled the edge of the knife towards the guard's throat and eyed the men.
"Let's make a deal," she stated coldly.