ROSE 1 COLD FLOWER
Flurries of snow descend on Oxford Street as festive lights crisscross the boulevard and holiday decorations adorn the storefronts of the businesses lining the well-known shopping destination. As the glimmer of a silver moon creeps out from behind the clouds, however, the street appears nearly empty save for a few late night stragglers.
One of the travelers down the street pauses in front of a boutique. Her long black hair is tucked neatly inside the hood of her parka, which hangs low over her eyes, concealing her face. In her right hand, she holds a long, thin sword hidden inside a snow white sheath.
Tsukiko Amherst looks over her shoulder, her breath sailing off in a puff of white mist. There is nobody in the vacant street behind her. Turning her attention back to the storefront, Tsukiko examines her reflection in the window of the store. Behind the display in the window is a stuffed lion doll with exaggerated claws. Overhead, a sign reads, Mister Snuggle Claws – On Sale Now!
A faint smile dances about Tsukiko's lips as she watches the lion doll. She does not flinch as a frigid gust of wind blows by, but her eyes quickly narrow as the sound of footsteps reaches her ears over the wind. Peering through the darkness, Tsukiko discerns a tall but scrawny figure approaching in the distance. She tugs her parka closer and turns away, walking briskly further down the street.
The soles of her shoes clatter against the icy pavement as Tsukiko passes a streetlamp. A poster attached to the lamp features a photograph of her face, along with the words WANTED FOR TREASON AGAINST THE GRAND BRITISH EMPIRE.
Still looking over her shoulder periodically, Tsukiko crosses to the other side of the street and takes a side passage onto an adjacent avenue. The narrow lane is lined with older warehouses and an abandoned apartment building. Rickety scaffolding covers the façade of the building while its doors and windows have been boarded up.
Pushing against one of the boarded-up windows on the ground floor, Tsukiko clambers through the tiny hole created and enters her hiding place behind it. Inside, the building has been nearly hollowed out. All that remains of the lobby is a mahogany desk on the far right side and a creaky staircase leading onto the upper floors. Underneath, the floorboards have been stripped bare, so that only cold hard stone is left. A chandelier with missing pieces of glass hangs from the ceiling.
At the center of the room is a chair, on top of which rests a candle and a narrow glass vase containing a single orchid. Tsukiko approaches the chair, but not before the front door of the building breaks open with a crack. Raising the sword in her hands, Tsukiko stumbles backwards as she meets the eyes of her assailant standing in the doorway.
The assassin is shrouded in a black cloak, while knives hang from a pouch attached to his belt. His face is hidden behind a mask in the shape of a skull, but his dark black eyes drill into Tsukiko as he points a pistol at her.
"The military appears quite adamant about sending as many of you lot into an early death as possible." Tsukiko smiles pitifully at her assassin as she draws her sword from its sheath.
Even in the dim light inside the building, Julia shines with a seemingly magical luminescence. The sword is silver in color, with a blade that is nearly as thin as a rapier. It gleams with a moon-like brightness even as Tsukiko's eyes turn crimson. At the same moment, the assassin fires from his gun.
With a whirl, the bullet flies past Tsukiko's ear as she sidesteps the attack. She swings her sword, diverting a second bullet's path with the crystalline fragments of her mana shield and sending it into the vase on top of her chair. The vase shatters with a wobble, but not before knocking over the candle beside it.
Immediately, ghostly blue flames begin to devour the ground below. They gain a fiery intensity within moments, turning bright red as they rise high into the air. On the floor, the orchid lies abandoned and forgotten, save by the flames which quickly consume it.
Tsukiko turns and flees just as the assassin draws his daggers. Her footsteps pound against the ground as she heads for the back of the building. Tsukiko punches open another wooden barrier at a window facing a back alley and leaps through hit.
Silently, the assassin flies after her, stopping momentarily at the window to look through it. Already, Tsukiko has disappeared into the night. With a sigh, the assassin climbs through the window as well.
Meanwhile, the flames grow ever more furious. The pillars supporting the building crumble and crack as the flames tear them apart. Lying amidst the pieces of broken glass surrounding it, the orchid disappears in a haze of ashes.
The shriek of an airliner descending towards the ground pierces the air as the flurry threatens to turn into a full-fledged snow storm. A man with short, silver hair and an impossibly neat mustache waits outside the bright lights of one of the terminals, a black luxury vehicle sitting by the curb behind him. He removes his bowler hat from his head and bows as someone emerges from the terminal.
"It is a pleasure to see you once again, Master Azure."
Gazing back at the old butler is a young man with dark black hair and equally dark eyes. His face is fixed into a frown, but at the sight of the butler, Azure Dunbarton softens his features. "I'm glad to see you as well, Samuel. It's been a long time."
Bowing again, Samuel strides over to the back of the vehicle and opens the door for Azure. As his master enters the car, Samuel says, "If I may be so rude as to inquire, how did your holiday in exile fare, my young master?"
"Terrible," Azure replies. The ends of Samuel's mustache twitch slightly.
"Grim as always," Samuel mutters, entering the car from the driver's side and buckling himself in. "To where may I have the pleasure of delivering you, Master Azure?"
"Straight to the hotel," answers Azure.
The Dunbarton vehicle soon pulls out of the airport and heads onto a highway cutting through the middle of London. Leaning back in his seat, Azure watches the yellow and white lights of the city flicker by. He presses a button on his armrest, and a radio program immediately bursts into life:
"Fugitive Tsukiko Amherst remains at large this evening. Nearly nine months have passed since she first revealed herself to the world as the illegitimate daughter of Emperor George VIII, but she has eluded capture since her very public row with Prime Minister Halquist. As devoted citizens of the Grand British Empire, we at the B.E.B.C. urge anyone who may have knowledge regarding her whereabouts to report that information to the military.
"In related news, the new government under P.M. Halquist is rumored to be moving forward with a candidate to the throne of their own. The House of Vincent has reportedly discussed the prospect of one of their own assuming the throne; the House of Vincent, of course, has historically held strong blood ties to the House of Lincoln from which George VIII was descended—"
Azure turns the radio off. He closes his eyes as he rests his head against the back of his seat. When he opens them again, the sight of a familiar building in the London skyline leaps out at him. The gothic-style skyscraper towers over the other buildings surrounding it; though a shell of scaffolding surrounds the uppermost floors of the building, the words Valhalla Corporation can still be clearly read at the crown.
Though he does not say anything, Azure's fingers dig deeper into the leather surface of the armrest below him.
The lively clatter of poker chips and conversation fills the underground chamber. Plumes of cigarette smoke rise into the air, swirling about before joining the larger cloud of smoke hovering near the stone ceiling. In lieu of lights, the room is lit by a number of candles throughout the room. On the wall behind a wooden bar, the French tricolor is displayed prominently.
A door swings open on one side of the room as a man with short black hair and grizzly stubble lumbers through it. He quickly slams the door shut, concealing a dark, torch-lit tunnel behind him. The man shrugs off his leather coat as a number of his friends hail him from inside the chamber.
"Ah, Roland! You have returned!"
The man named Roland saunters over to the largest table in the room, where many of his friends are sitting around playing poker. The stubs of cigarettes burn in their mouths, while bottles of wine and brandy litter the table and floor around them.
"You weren't followed back, were you?" asks one of them, an older man with one blind eye and a thick, ragged beard. He puffs on a cigarette as he pounds several poker chips into the middle of the table.
Roland shakes his head. "Non, Arnaud, I wasn't."
"Well, come sit next to your old friend Etienne, then, and join your brothers in arms for a drink!" laughs another of the men. He pulls up a chair for Roland, patting the seat warmly. "How was it to be back on the surface of Paris? We've been cooped up in these old catacombs far too long!"
"It was fine," Roland replies, sidling into the seat. He accepts a large bottle of wine held out to him. Taking a long swig from it, Roland lets out a long sigh. "Things aren't doing so well for the revolutionary movement though. The people. The people! They've all fallen in with the British. I fear the day our children will forget how to even sing La Marseillaise!"
At Roland's words, the faces of his friends darken. The one-eyed Arnaud wags a gnarled finger at the much younger Roland. "It is those British phantoms, I tell you. They've been going 'round committing atrocities and striking terror into the hearts of true patriots all over the country. They don't want France to be independent again, they fear those Germans!"
"And so we are to fear them as they fear the Germans?" says another of the men, a small brown-haired boy with round glasses. He thumps his fist against the table. "We are the last resistance! We cannot allow the British to win!"
"But they are stronger," growls Arnaud. "They are stronger, and better-equipped and better-trained than we are. Especially that Golden-Haired Terror."
Etienne whistles lewdly as he smiles at his cards. "I heard that Golden-Haired Terror is a woman, too! What she needs is a good talking-to in between the sheets, know what I mean?"
The men around the table laugh raucously. Joining in, Roland claps his friend on the shoulder. "I don't know about you, my friend, but there isn't much talking when I'm in the bed!"
Another round of laughter breaks out in the underground chamber, but it soon dwindles into an awkward silence as Roland holds out a hand and looks up. He raises an eyebrow as several more droplets of water fall from the ceiling into his open palm. "A leak? What—?"
The sound of water cascading down from the ceiling drowns out all else as the chamber is suddenly plunged into total darkness. All of the men hop to their feet immediately, knocking over their chairs as they grope through the darkness for their weapons.
"Wh-what's going on?!"
Roland wipes water from his eyes with his sleeve as he stays low near the ground, cradling an assault rifle in his free hand. Dark shapes bump and move all around him. Suddenly, the blinding light of torches illuminates the chamber. Roland's eyes widen.
Five men in black military jackets wielding assault rifles of their own stand at the entrance to the room. There is a long pause as both sides raise their guns and point them at each other. Biting his lip, Roland remains on the ground near the table, a bead of sweat running down his forehead. Then he looks up.
Something gold flashes out from a secret passage behind the flag on the wall. Arnaud gasps and turns towards the wall, but he is cut down before he can even raise his hands.
Atop the poker table stands a woman with her blonde hair tied up in a ponytail. She slashes the air with her sword, letting the blood from Arnaud's body splatter across the walls.
Roland's eyes bulge. "Th-the Golden-Haired Terror!"
The woman frowns, placing her free hand on her lip. "I prefer Lily," she says in a low voice. "Lily Sayer, Vice-Captain of Squad Three of the Seraphim Knights. The lot of you are under arrest for treason and conspiring against the Grand British Empire!"
"Arrest?!" says Etienne. "Who are you kidding?! You're just gonna kill us all, you bitch!"
Still standing on top of the table, Lily turns to face Etienne and flashes a cold, close-mouthed smile at him. The Frenchman quickly pales. "I've been granted the authority to expedite your trials swiftly and decisively. You ought to consider yourselves lucky."
"Damn bitch!" Etienne shouts, raising his gun.
Before he can place his finger on the trigger, however, Etienne coughs up blood as Lily slips past him and lands a cut across his abdomen. Etienne's gun drops to the ground with a clatter, his hands gravitating towards his stomach; a second later, he joins his gun on the ground as Lily crushes his skull with an elbow to the back of the head.
"Etienne!" says Roland.
"Forget it! Everyone, if we all fire on her, there's no way she'll be able to beat us all at once!" shouts another of the revolutionaries. Together, they all raise their guns and fire at once.
Looking over her shoulder, Lily leaps straight into the air and bounces off the ceiling. She lands behind Roland, clamping an arm around his neck and using him as a human shield. The bullets pellet his body like rain colliding against the pavement, but Lily soon ends his misery by cutting a large gash across his back.
"You monster…" Roland mutters as he drops to the ground.
The ceaseless drone of gunfire quickly grinds to a halt. Bloodied and gasping with horror, the remaining French revolutionaries abandon their weapons and attempt to flee. But the other five men in Lily's squad soon move into action themselves, cutting off all hope of escape.
Lily Sayer turns and walks out the door as the screaming and pleading of the Frenchmen gradually turn into silence. She pulls a handkerchief out from the pocket of her fatigue and wipes the blood from her blade before sheathing it.
A/N: Welcome to ROSE, the sequel to ORCHID! It's been several months since ORCHID ended, but the time has finally come for the series to make its return. As was the case last time, new chapters will be uploaded every Friday. You may NOT reproduce this work without my permission.
If this is your first time reading the series, ROSE chronologically follows ORCHID and ORCHID: Scandinavian Interlude respectively. However, I know ORCHID is quite long, and if ROSE seems interesting anyway, I encourage you to jump straight in without reading any of the previous installments. You'll be a little bit confused, but you'll figure out what's going on quickly enough.
DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. The views expressed in this work of fiction are not necessarily representative of my own beliefs. The words and actions of characters in this story are not an endorsement of any political or personal ideals, nor are they meant to be interpreted as indicative of the beliefs of any other persons or organizations.