Disclaimer: I don't own Gundam.
Many thanks again to LW for beta reading! And Happy New Year!
The Scarlet Admirer
"And can you imagine my surprise? I've never been called a 'hussy' before let alone a… What was it again? A strumpet!"
Hearing the words leave her mouth and imagining the scandal they would cause if the public ever overheard them, Princess Claudia tittered while some of her guests shuffled nervously in their seats.
After her identity as Vega's secret admirer had been revealed, Claudia had suggested they take their conversation elsewhere and the group now found themselves inside the penthouse of the Venus Hotel. The luxurious apartment was more than Ursula or Charlotte could afford on their modest salaries and its lavish trappings did little to calm their already frayed nerves. Ursula did, however, fare much better than Charlotte when they were greeted by a row of chorusing maids.
At Claudia's behest, they sat outside on the spacious balcony where a round white table had been prepared with tea and cake. Obviously, the princess had planned to bring Vega here so they could converse while admiring the glorious view of the city but two more chairs had already been added for her extra guests, presumably by the maids. Sitting next to Charlotte so she could keep an eye on her, Ursula instructed the blonde to keep her mouth shut and let her do the talking as she handled their introductions as well as their second unconditional apology to the princess.
"Again, please accept our sincerest apologies, Princess Claudia…" Ursula bowed her head and forcefully pushed Charlotte's down too. "I'll be sure to punish this one later, so if Your Highness could be merciful…"
"Of course. As I was saying, I was not offended at all. In fact, it was quite thrilling to be mistaken for 'the other woman'," Claudia chuckled at the memory and politely covered her mouth with well-manicured fingers. As expected of a princess, she had perfect posture no matter what action she performed and looked positively regal in her flowing, long-sleeved green dress. She was also far more relaxed and benevolent than what either of them had expected of royalty. "I have no desire for anyone to be punished so please, raise your heads."
"Thank you, Your Highness. You are most gracious," Ursula lifted her head and replied with the appropriate decorum before addressing the girl beside her. "Did you hear that? Princess Claudia was kind enough to forgive you. What do you say?"
"…Thank you, Your Highness…" Charlotte mumbled, unused to speaking with proper etiquette let alone while in the presence of royalty, and the bullish prodigy was quiet for once.
"You are most welcome, Miss Charlotte," Claudia chucked again and noticed the smaller woman was almost drooling as she stared at the tower of cakes in front of her. "Please, help yourself. There's no need to hold back."
Checking with her handler first, Charlotte's face lit up when she received Ursula's nod of approval and she began stabbing at the cakes with her fork before wolfing them down. Her childish antics caused Ursula to openly sigh but a certain major across the table only laughed.
"Princess Claudia, I hope you'll forgive me for extending your invitation to Ursula – and, as it happens, Charlotte – but I assure you they are upstanding LIRA pilots and my important comrades," said Vega who somehow got away with keeping her red sunglasses on in the presence of the imperial princess.
"O-Of course not, Miss Vega! Any friend of yours is more than welcome to join us!" Claudia hurriedly proclaimed and, judging by her doe-like eyes as she observed Vega from head to toe, it was painfully obvious she was smitten with the ace. "If anything, I must share the blame for not stating my intentions clearly in my letter and for choosing to remain anonymous. I did not want to force you to come by using my position, you see…"
"Your Highness is most considerate… and please, call me Vega," the silver-haired woman smiled, sipped her tea and watched as the princess almost swooned from happiness at her request. "However, I did have my suspicions as to the identity of the sender. For one, your handwriting was so round, curly and feminine that I knew it must be a woman. And secondly… Well, your bodyguard was hardly subtle when he delivered the invitation."
Vega redirected her gaze to a spot behind Princess Claudia and a large man stepped out of the shadows, revealing himself to be Colonel Alistair Wallace. He had exchanged his Imperial Guard uniform for a nondescript black suit and tie but still retained his gruff exterior as he considered the Scarlet Wolf with a deep frown that bent his handlebar moustache. At the same time, a small red ball bounced out from behind the man and landed on the princess' lap.
"Haro! Haro!" the mechanical ball chirped as it flapped its ears.
"Why, hello to you too, Haro. Were you out patrolling with the colonel?" Claudia giggled and placed the ball on the table so it could see the others. "As you've guessed, Colonel Wallace is one of my bodyguards – my head of security, in fact – and it was he who offered to deliver the invitation in my place. I dearly wanted to go to the soiree myself but Father forbade me, saying I should not show favouritism to one house over another…"
"His majesty only has your best interests at heart, Princess," Wallace stated to the rolling of Claudia's red eyes. "And may I remind Your Highness that you threatened to attend the soiree anyway if I did not go in your place and deliver your letter. The day I 'offer' to step foot inside the House of Wolves willingly is the day my mind has lost all cognition…"
"Oh, Colonel… And here I thought you were visiting out of the goodness of your heart," Vega feigned shock by placing a hand on her chest and pouting her red lips. "I'm a little hurt…"
"The hell you are! Humans get hurt – feel pain – but you, Vega… I don't know if you have the capacity for it! Meeting you again reminded me that you're more wolf than hu– wipe that smug smile off your face!"
The furious colonel ordered as such but Vega just grinned cheekily at his outburst and the others were hardly surprised. The princess, however, appeared fascinated by the exchange.
"Ever since the colonel became my head of security, he's told me all kinds of stories about the Scarlet Wolf… and it's just like I imagined!" Claudia clapped her hands in delight. "I'm so glad we set up this meeting. Truthfully, I've wanted to meet you for the longest time, V-Vega."
"Yeah, why did you invite Lady Vega out here?" Charlotte, in between mouthfuls of cake, finally interjected and cocked an eyebrow. "…Are you a fan?"
The smaller girl accusingly pointed her fork at the princess until Ursula slapped it down.
"Yes… I'm actually a huge Scarlet Wolf fan," Princess Claudia readily admitted and cupped her reddening cheeks as she turned to face Vega. "Ever since you came to the public's attention five years ago at the Third Battle for Lemuria, I've been following your career and exploits nonstop. It's embarrassing but I also collect all your merchandise and I need a whole other room just to store everything. I've always dreamt of meeting you in person and… and now that that dream has come true, I… I just wanted to inform you how much you've inspired me, Vega. Also, if it's not too much to ask… may I obtain your autograph?"
The princess shyly made the request by closing her eyes, half expecting Vega to refuse or laugh at her, but the noblewoman did nothing of the sort.
"…Of course, Your Highness. I would be honoured," she said, and Claudia's eyes opened with delight to discover Vega's sincere visage before the woman cheekily teased the princess with a smile. "Anything for a fan..."
"V-Vega!" Claudia blushed and Vega chuckled while her fellow Space Wolves glowered at the blossoming friendship with irritation.
As expected of the major, she was not above charming even Lux's princess. What was most surprising, however, was how Vega still adhered to royal protocol by not touching the princess. Usually, as Ursula and Charlotte knew all too well, the Scarlet Wolf couldn't keep her paws off her young female admirers.
"I had no idea I was so… beloved… by Your Highness," Vega went on, resting her hand on her heart and sighing. "Truly, you honour me with your words, Princess Claudia. I have met many fans but none have humbled me as much as you. I only hope I can live up to your expectations…"
"Oh, no, I never meant to burden you so… Please forget what I said, Vega!" a panicked Claudia reached out and touched Vega's arm. "And please… you do not need to be so formal in private. Call me Claudia…."
"As you wish… Claudia."
Vega's tongue pronounced the princess' name with the smoothness of silk and caused the redhead to flush to her ears. Even the Haro on the table seemed to have turned bashful as its ear flaps covered its eyes. It didn't take a genius to figure out what the Scarlet Wolf was doing and a certain competitive admirer had had enough.
"Humph! Fan, you say? Then why haven't I heard of you before?" Charlotte tried to provoke the princess with a smirk. "Any real fan of Lady Vega has a number, if you know what I mean…"
"Ah, you speak of the Space Cubs, the Scarlet Wolf's official fan club…" Claudia smirked back and with a twinkle in their eyes they both whipped out their phones at the same time.
Charlotte proudly displayed her screen which read 'Member No.000000009'. However, her expression fell when she saw Claudia's screen which read 'Member No.000000001'.
"M-Member Number One?! That's impossible!" Charlotte cried and even Ursula, who knew a little bit of such matters, was shocked. "How? You must have cheated!"
"Not at all… I simply registered on the website like everyone else," Claudia smugly replied, neglecting to mention she had the advantage of knowing in advance the operations of what was a government program thanks to her royal connections. "So, you're Member Number Nine… Scarlet Cub."
"Scarlet Princess…!" Charlotte growled, loathing the offline meeting she never expected and now wished had never happened. "No fair! I had to hack like a dozen CPUs with good connections, open a hundred windows and stay up all night just to make the top ten!"
Ursula raised an eyebrow at the potential criminal acts the talented technopath was admitting to – in front of the princess, no less – but decided to let sleeping puppies lie.
"Member Number Nine is still incredibly lucky…" she told the pouting Charlotte, knowing her own siblings had a shared membership number in the millions. "And Princess Claudia is Member Number One… Does that make Your Highness the President of the Space Cubs?"
"Officially, yes… but I mostly just post about my Scarlet Wolf collection on the website forum," Claudia confessed and brought her teacup to her lips. "The real, unofficial organiser of the Space Cubs who's also the administrator of the website and forum is Member Number Two. She's like a Scarlet Wolf encyclopedia and knows everything about you, Vega! Even details that aren't privy to the public."
"It's creepy how accurate she is… At first I thought she was making stuff up, but she even knows I'm in the Space Wolves and keeps messaging me," Charlotte said with a shiver. "You should be careful, Lady Vega… This Scarlet Maid might be a stalker!"
"How intriguing… I wonder who this Scarlet Maid could be?" Vega pondered with an innocent smile.
"Wait… Scarlet Maid?" Ursula stopped and whispered, her features contorting with disbelief. "It couldn't be…"
The image of Vega's perfect maid, Dorothy, materialised in her mind and she could even hear her impish laughter.
"Whoever she is, she certainly likes teasing the other members and making us jealous with her insider knowledge…" Claudia grumbled, inadvertently making Ursula flinch, and the princess put down her teacup. "That's why today I plan to expand on my Scarlet Wolf trivia! I hope you don't mind, Vega, but there's so much I want to ask you!"
"Not at all. Please, ask me anything you wish," Vega chuckled, leaning back and crossing her legs as if she was about to be interviewed. "However, I cannot promise I will always give you a straight answer."
"That's perfectly fine," Claudia chuckled and propped up her chin on the table using her elbows. Beside her, the red Haro hopped noisily with excitement. "My first question is in regard to your first battle at Lemuria: How did your Warg change from black to red?"
"Ah, my old Warg… I believe Colonel Wallace also knows the answer to this question," Vega giggled with nostalgia while her old superior scowled. "A few days before the battle, I decided my Warg could do with some… beautification… and so I devoted an entire night to painting it bright scarlet. When I was finished, I thought it looked magnificent… but sadly, Captain Wallace did not share my sentiments in the morning."
"That's putting it lightly…" Wallace growled and looked like he was getting a headache. "I've had new pilots do some stupid things before their first battle but I've never had someone paint their entire mobile suit red. If I recall correctly, I thought I ordered you to paint it back to black…"
"Oh, and I did, Colonel! But I must have mistakenly used paint of an inferior quality. In the heat of battle, it just stripped off from the Warg and the scarlet coat was exposed for all to see," Vega innocently explained and lifted up her teacup like it was one of her glasses of red wine. "A glorious accident really, wouldn't you say?"
"Accident my foot…" Wallace groused and the others around the table laughed.
"And where is that red Warg now?" Claudia asked, petting her Haro.
"At Dragnel Airbase, where the Space Wolves are stationed," Ursula answered. "The major likes to take it out for a spin all the time."
"Only when my Fenrir is undergoing maintenance. It would get jealous otherwise…" said Vega quite seriously.
"Jealous?" Claudia cocked her head but blunt looks from Ursula and Charlotte told her not to bother asking so she moved on. "Well, for my second question: Why did you decline the invitation to join the Imperial Guard? It maddens me to think we could have been together every day!"
"My apologies, Princess. I did not mean to disappoint you… or my former mentor, the colonel, who must be as heartbroken as you," Vega sighed only for Wallace to vehemently shake his head. "But I decided I would much prefer to serve the empire by continuing to lead the Space Wolves against Rem. I couldn't possibly leave Ursula, Charlotte or any of my other comrades to fight on without me so I declined."
"Did you hear that? Lady Vega prefers to be with us," Charlotte simpered at the princess who puffed her cheeks out like red balloons.
"However, if I may be so impudent to point out, the Imperial Guard never withdrew their offer," Vega went on to say and her next words caused her protégé to sulk. "I believe I could join anytime I wanted and they would not refuse. Perhaps, once the war is over, we will have many chances to speak over tea like we are now, Your Highness."
"Oh, joy…" Wallace griped while the features of his charge brightened in quite the opposite manner.
"I… I look forward to that day, Vega," a starry-eyed Claudia whispered before clearing her throat. "My third question: who is stronger? You… or the White Hellhound?"
Vega laughed, a light and hearty sound. It was perhaps a short moment of disarmament as she paused to consider the question.
"Without a doubt, she has the advantage technologically…" she began, picking out a slice of vanilla cake before halving it with her fork. "…But I believe I have the edge in both experience and technopathic talent. That said, the Hellhound grows stronger with every battle. Our next encounter may be our last…"
The small section of cake went into Vega's mouth and she stopped to savour its taste.
"You almost sound disappointed," Claudia probed her idol with a raised eyebrow. "Are you that fond of your rival?"
"I cannot deny I have come to enjoy our little duels," Vega admitted, smiling. "We have pushed each other to new and exhilarating heights as only two opposing existences could – like two stars vying to outshine the other. But all things must come to an end eventually. Fate has put our destinies on a collision course… and one must fall."
"I see… I never realised your rivalry was so… perilous," Claudia whispered and her face fell with concern. "I will be praying for your victory, Vega."
"What are you saying, Princess? Of course Lady Vega will be victorious!" Charlotte suddenly rebuked the stunned redhead and stabbed a vanilla cake to make her point. "That White Hellhound has only been lucky so far because of the relics she's found! Well, she's in for an awful surprise when the Fenrir's new mode wipes the floor with her next time... and I'll be glad when she's dead! It's always 'Hellhound this' and 'Hellhound that' with Lady Vega; you should be paying more attention to me!"
"Oh, Charlotte…" Vega chuckled as her protégé pouted like a child before brightening her day. "I'm sorry if I've been neglecting you lately but I promise to make it up to you for the rest of our R&R."
"My, how lucky you are, Miss Charlotte… and you're right; I'm sure Vega will emerge victorious against the White Hellhound. As the number one fan of the Scarlet Wolf, it would be disloyal of me to doubt her!" Claudia declared with a pump of her fists and Ursula wondered if Charlotte had purposely riled the princess to cheer her up. "And by the way… you're quite sure the White Hellhound is a woman?"
"Positive. She has a nice figure…" said Vega, recalling the image of the pilot that had ejected from her Garm before it self-destructed on Lenos while the others gave her a dirty look. "Any other questions, Your Highness?"
"Just one," said Claudia as she casually picked up her Haro and hugged it. "Why do you wear a mask?"
The bluntness of the question was meant to catch Vega off guard but the ace pilot neither laughed nor smiled this time. The others were equally silent, overcome by curiosity as they leaned forward to hear her answer. But, as always, the Scarlet Wolf revealed nothing and left them to wonder what went on behind the lustre of her red-tinted sunglasses.
"Because every woman has a secret… and a secret makes a woman," a haughty Vega cryptically replied. "And this mask happens to be mine."
"I see… I suppose I will have to live with the mystery for now. Not that I ever expected you to answer," Claudia masked her disappointment with a sigh and resigned herself to leaving the mystery unsolved. "Well, that's enough questions. Shall we move on? I have so much more planned for today!"
"Really? What are we eating next?" Charlotte asked, greedily grabbing the last few cakes while Ursula frowned at her.
"Oh, I want to show Vega my collection… and have a private screening of the Scarlet Wolf movie trilogy based on her life… and take pictures together to commemorate the occasion," Claudia listed off excitedly using her fingers while her Haro bounced on her lap before the princess turned bashful. "And later... I was hoping we could have some… girl talk…"
Claudia redirected her red gaze at Colonel Wallace who took a moment to realise what the princess was implying and his moustache bristled at the idea.
"B-But, Your Highness! I must be with you at all times!" the man known as Breaker Wallace beseeched his charge to no avail. "It would be a dereliction of my duty to leave you unguarded!"
"Oh hush, Colonel. We both know your men are already stationed outside the penthouse and all over the Venus Hotel," Claudia dismissed her bodyguard's concerns with a wave of her hand. "And I will not be unguarded; I will have the Scarlet Wolf and two of her most trusted Space Wolves with me the entire time. I'll be fine."
Wallace appeared to stretch open his mouth, an action Vega recognised from her days in his squad when the Breaker was about to verbally rip into an ill-disciplined pilot, but he held his tongue.
"Very well… Then I shall leave Princess Claudia in your care, ladies," he grumbled and took his leave… but not before making eye contact with Vega. Once they heard the doors to the penthouse slam shut, Claudia clapped her hands and stood up.
"Well, now that the nuisance is out of the way… shall we get going?"
"Going, Your Highness? Where are we going?" Ursula asked and looked on with distress as the princess' maids filed in holding a different set of clothes each. As Claudia selected a new outfit on the spot, Ursula realised she was picking out a disguise.
"Outside. To see Dragnel," the princess replied matter-of-factly as a maid held up a mirror while she tried on a beret. "It's so rare I have a chance to go out incognito… Oh, please don't say you won't go along with it! As I said, I have so much planned for today!"
"It's not a matter of going along with it or not, princess, it's… it's…" Ursula tried to find the words to dissuade Claudia but ended up looking for help. "Say something, Major!"
"I think… this is a wonderful idea," Vega grinned, much to Claudia's delight and Ursula's horror, and stood up. "Why not? Let us help the princess spread her wings for today!"
"If that's what the princess wants and Lady Vega is okay with it… sure," Charlotte agreed, gulping down the last of her tea and rising to her feet. "I need to walk off all this cake anyway…"
"Splendid! There's a secret elevator in the penthouse we can use to escape the hotel," Claudia clapped her hands again and went inside with a spring in her step. "Just let me get changed and we can go!"
The princess disappeared into one of the bedrooms with her maids and a slack-jawed Ursula was the only one left sitting at the table.
"We can't take the princess outside and away from her security detail!" she argued, staring at the other two like they were mad. "If we're discovered, we could get in serious trouble… Oh god, what if we're accused of kidnapping?!"
"Worry not, my dear Ursula," Vega placed a hand on the shoulder of her second and smiled. "Colonel Wallace is not a fool and you can bet the princess' bodyguards will be close behind. Not that the princess will notice but… well, we'll just keep that little detail to ourselves, shall we?"
Vega laughed and leaned on the balcony railing to admire the view of Dragnel. Balling her hands into fists, Ursula resisted the urge to slam them down on the table before finally standing up.
"Why am I always the only one with common sense…?!" she muttered in a rage.
Outside the Venus Hotel, all appeared quiet and ordinary. The streets had been adorned with red, white and green decorations in the spirit of the winter season, and the pedestrians were filled with holiday cheer.
That is, until the infernal roar of an engine disturbed the peace.
The next thing anyone knew, a red, high-performance sports car had exploded onto the scene, almost taking flight as it left the ramp of the Venus Hotel's underground parking lot. Like a screaming demon bursting out from the depths, it swerved immediately upon leaving the gates to avoid crashing into the building across the road, swinging its entire chassis into a screeching drift. By some miracle, the car never left the asphalt and arced perfectly into the left-most lane before it took off down the road at blinding speed, leaving stunned onlookers in its wake.
As the sports car weaved through traffic like a red daredevil, manic laughter could be heard coming from the driver's seat where a silver-haired woman was grinning with glee. Demonstrating that her technopathic prowess was not limited to just mobile suits, Vega drove with expert skill, operating the pedals, gearbox and steering wheel with synchronised finesse until she was forced to stop at a set of red lights. The car's tyres ground to a sudden halt and its hardtop roof folded back, revealing three other passengers who were as pale as ghosts.
"…Would it kill you to drive like a normal person?" Ursula chided her superior before she took a breath and made sure she was still in one piece. "I'm sure I don't need to remind you, Major, but we're not in space and this isn't one of your Fenrir joyrides… And even if it was, you have a VIP for a passenger for goodness' sake!"
"Oh hush, Ursula. It's nothing a pilot such as yourself couldn't handle," Vega replied with a smile and stared at the disgruntled subordinate on the rear-view mirror through her red sunglasses. "And judging by her screams of delight, the princess thoroughly enjoyed it. Did you not, Your Highness?"
Beside Vega in the front passenger seat, Claudia flinched at the sound of her title and released the iron grip she had on the red Haro in her lap. The princess had changed out of her gorgeous green dress in favour of a warm scarlet bomber jacket, chic black shorts, long green socks and black sneakers. The casual outfit was topped off by a black beret overflowing with her red locks underneath and fake black glasses with large square frames behind which her dazed red eyes blinked themselves back to reality.
"Oh… Oh, yes. That was… thrilling. For a moment, I really thought I was flying in the Fenrir with the Scarlet Wolf…" Claudia whispered as colour returned to her rosy cheeks. "I hope the car is to your liking, Vega. I don't know much about automobiles and just picked one out from the hotel catalogue…"
The secret elevator the princess had spoken of had turned out to be the penthouse's car lift where the red sports car was already waiting for them. The lift descended all the way down to the hotel's underground parking lot, allowing the group to bypass and eventually abscond from Claudia's surprisingly lax security detail. Recalling Vega's supposition that Colonel Wallace had already prepared for the princess' bid for freedom, Ursula noticed a nondescript car following them but said nothing.
Better to allow her highness to believe her scheme had gone off without a hitch, thought the captain with a sigh.
"Oh yes, she is magnificent! You picked a fine beast of a machine, Your Highness," Vega answered the princess and as she rubbed the dashboard the engine seemed to purr. "And fortunately, it has enough seats for all of us."
"Wait a minute… You picked this car with the intention of riding off alone with Lady Vega, didn't you?!" Charlotte leapt up from behind Vega's seat and accused Claudia with an ireful glare. "This whole spontaneous outing was originally just a ploy to elope with Lady Vega! That's… That's so sly! I take it back; I'm glad we crashed your secret rendezvous, you scheming little snake of a prin–"
"Sit down, Charlotte!" Ursula hissed, grabbing the girl and pulling her back into her seat. "The princess was kind enough to let us come along for the ride so just what are you complaining about?"
"Indeed, something tells me this will be a glorious excursion so we should all just sit back and enjoy ourselves today," said Vega, watching her pouting protégé in the rear-view mirror with a chuckle before turning to the princess. "So, where to first, Claudia?"
"Oh, I… I already input our entire itinerary into the car's computer…" Claudia bashfully replied and tapped the screen in the middle of the dashboard, revealing in the process that Charlotte's accusations of a date plan had not been unfounded.
"Oh ho, I see…" Vega's red lips curved at the sight of the 3D map of Dragnel on-screen and she studied the directions with a nod of her head. "This is quite the pleasure trip you have planned, Princess… but a pleasure trip we shall have. Just leave the driving to me. Now, hold on tight, everyone… Onwards!"
The traffic lights turned green and Vega floored the accelerator, launching the red convertible forward to the screams of its occupants as they raced through the streets of Dragnel.
Their first stop, according to Claudia's itinerary, was the Dragnel Museum of History and Art which was currently holding several exhibitions. The Lost World exhibition explored the mystery of Lemuria through preserved photographs and paintings that had been loaded aboard the Serpent Ark before its fateful journey. There were also numerous artifacts brought back by expeditions to the yellow planet on display including a real purple cube Relic. While Claudia bounced from display to display like a smiling pinball, dragging a chuckling Vega along with her, a frowning Ursula had to smack Charlotte every now and again to stop her from yawning.
There was also the Rise of the Serpent Empire exhibition which recounted the formation of the Lux Empire three centuries ago. Paintings by famous artists displayed the chronology of events now legendary in Lux history from the refusal of the Outer Rim Planets to assist the Serpent Ark refugees after they had fled the Lemurian Cataclysm to the ark's forced, almost suicidal colonisation of the barren world known as Lux and the internal strife that followed.
Expecting their new home to be a picturesque paradise after a year-long journey, the Serpent refugees – who consisted almost entirely of the Lemurian elite and upper class – were aghast to find Lux was barely habitable, rationed supplies were already dwindling and the ark was now marooned. The dire and intolerable conditions eventually led to a mutiny against the captain and crew, incited by none other than Claudia's ancestor, Augustus Serpentine. Emperor Augustus, as he would come to be known, would usher in a new era of successful colonisation and officially establish the Lux Empire – the foundations of which had lasted to this day.
Being a descendant of the famed first emperor, Claudia could not help but take in each display with wide-eyed awe and particularly admired the lifelike bronze statue of Augustus. Vega and Ursula, however, were more circumspect in their appreciation of the exhibition, recognising it as a thinly veiled piece of patriotic propaganda. As for Charlotte, she couldn't give two figs about emperor-whoever and would have slipped into a coma if not for the exhibition next door.
It just so happened that the Dragnel Museum was also hosting another presentation of its popular exhibition The Scarlet Wolf – Behind the Mask after considerable public demand. Paintings, photographs, sculptures, video footage, newspaper articles and former possessions – everything on display was Vega-related and chronicled her life in venerating detail from the Lux Royal Military Academy to the Fourth Battle of Lemuria. Judging by Claudia's starry-eyed excitement, this was the true purpose of their visit and, along with a crazed Charlotte, the princess snapped a perpetual stream of photos. Instead of a phone, however, she used her Haro of all things which also happened to serve as a multifunctional camera.
Upon seeing her own exhibition, Vega merely chuckled and cheekily recreated the poses of the paintings and sculptures of herself while standing in front of them, earning a face full of camera flashes from the throng of unwitting visitors who probably thought she was another fan. After a long session of group pictures and selfies, Ursula finally shepherded the group out before anyone grew suspicious but not before a quick stopover at the souvenir shop full of Scarlet Wolf merchandise where she bought some keychains for her siblings.
Following another wild car ride, the second stop on the itinerary was a grand cinema where the quartet watched an action-adventure film about an archaeologist who hunted down supernatural Relics on Lemuria while fighting off Rem scum. The movie also happened to star the same actress who played Vega in all the Scarlet Wolf films which only heightened its appeal to the younger members of the group. Enraptured, Claudia's and Charlotte's eyes were glued to the screen as they blindly munched on their buckets of butter popcorn.
After the movie finished, they took a walk and saw some of Dragnel's famous sights such as the Dragnel Bridge and the parade of statues aptly called the Emperor's Parade. They took more photos along the way and giggled as Vega repeatedly imitated overacted lines from the film before taking a break inside an air-conditioned mall. A shopping spree ensued and the frugal Ursula was dragged along as they tried on different and extravagant outfits while the princess' Haro recorded everything. Finally, they sat down at a table in the food court to eat lunch which, at the princess' insistence, happened to be a smorgasbord of fast food.
"Oh my, that was… heavenly," a blissful Claudia leaned back and whispered after finishing off her second burger. "I can understand now why the palace forbids me from eating such things… Anything that tastes that good must be bad for you!"
It had been a strange sight watching Lux's imperial princess chow down on junk food and soda, but Ursula had witnessed it with her own eyes... including a discreet royal belch. She felt a little guilty, introducing commoner fare to Princess Claudia's strict diet, until she realised the men in black were watching several tables away and inwardly groaned. They were probably reporting everything to Colonel Wallace and laughing about how much food the women had eaten; Charlotte in particular was a little glutton who ate like she had four stomachs in that tiny body of hers. Watching the blonde consume grub like a vacuum, Ursula had been shocked while Vega, on the other hand, had called it cute.
Claudia, of course, was completely oblivious to the security detail behind her and played with her scarlet Haro instead. The top of the robot's head flipped open, revealing a phone with the Haro's recent photographs displayed on its screen which the smiling princess began flipping through. As Ursula watched the pupils of Claudia's red eyes move side to side while her hands rested underneath the pet, she came to a sudden realisation.
"You're a technopath…" she said, inadvertently blurting it out. Beside her, Charlotte froze with a stack of chips in her mouth while Vega's expression was unreadable. Looking up from across Ursula, Claudia grinned and puffed out her chest.
"I don't mean to brag but I programmed this Haro myself," the princess proudly stated, patting the robot's head. "Didn't I, Mister Haro?"
"Eh… Not bad," said Charlotte, swallowing her chips in one gulp before smirking. "…But could you handle a mobile suit?"
The goad clearly hit a nerve and Claudia's shoulders slumped.
"I bet I could… but I was denied the opportunity," she pouted, crossing her slender arms. "When I expressed interest in attending the Royal Military Academy to become a pilot, Father forbade it and sent me to the Dragnel School for Ladies instead even though Brother was allowed to attend and now he serves the empire as a LIRA pilot. Father even warns me to keep my talents secret, but Brother has been showing off his talents in public for years and gets nothing but praise for it. Why? It's not fair…"
Claudia finished with a squeeze of her fists and an uncomfortable silence fell over the table. While each pilot could empathise with the princess in one way or another, it wasn't their place to comment on the affairs of the imperial family. Finally, it was Vega who offered Claudia some words of comfort.
"I'm sure the emperor is only thinking of your safety, Claudia. No one wants to send their child to war," she said with a solemn tone before the edge of her lips curved upwards. "And it doesn't mean you have to give up on your dreams. Be patient. If the war were to end, perhaps his majesty would be more receptive…"
"He better be!" Charlotte suddenly slammed the table and yelled, surprising them, only to temper her anger when she realised the scene she was making. "Listening to your story just… just made me remember. I know what it's like to have to fight for your dreams… and to have your talent dismissed. Even now, I still remember the anger and the frustration at the academy. If… If it wasn't for Pavel and Lady Vega, I might never have graduated. You might be a thieving cat princess but… but don't give up on your dreams!"
Charlotte finished by yelling directly at Claudia before shrinking into herself and blushing. The smaller woman's tiny hands were balled into little fists and trembled until she felt them being caressed by something warm. Looking up, she found the princess leaning over the table with a gentle smile on her face as she cupped her hands in sympathy.
"Thank you, Charlotte…" Claudia whispered, looking into the blonde's red eyes and causing her blush to deepen. "And you as well, Vega. I won't give up. One day, I swear I'll soar through the skies in a mobile suit just like you three!"
"Y-You better!" Charlotte snatched her hand away and crossed her arms only for Claudia to giggle. "B-Besides, what's so great about the Royal Military Academy anyway? I didn't go; I mean, there wouldn't be any point since Lady Vega had already graduated by then!"
"True, Vega's being an alumna did heavily influence my desire to attend the academy… and I must admit I've come to be satisfied with my life at the Dragnel School for Ladies," Claudia conceded before her eyes took on a wistful glow and she clasped her hands together. "Oh, but to have attended the academy at the same time as Vega… If only dreams could come true!"
"I know, right? I wish I had been born earlier!"
"Is the idea of attending the academy alongside me really that appealing?" Vega mused, smiling as she watched the cub and princess finally see eye to eye. "What do you say, Ursula?"
"W-Why are you asking me?" the brunette, who was in the middle of sipping her soda, sputtered. "We hardly talked… and don't you remember your female fan club? They certainly found it appealing."
"Wait… You attended the Royal Military Academy… at the same time as Lady Vega…?" Charlotte gawked between the two alumnae like a fish before the inconvenient truth dawned on her doll-like features with explosive consequences. "Why didn't anyone tell me?!"
"Oh pray tell, Miss Ursula, what was it like to go to school with Vega?!" Claudia asked, her wide, expectant smile the exact opposite of Charlotte's reaction, and Ursula found herself beset by both women.
"It's not like it was a secret… and there's not much to say, really," she answered them in turn as her mind reluctantly drifted back to those days. "We were two years apart and ran in different circles. I certainly wasn't a member of Vega's fan club if that's what you're thinking…"
"I remember Ursula was so cold to me for almost the entire four years we attended together," Vega interjected, feigning hurt and drama in her voice. "Since we were both in the piloting course, I only wanted to make friends with her – the star, freshman cadet rumoured to have aced the entrance exams. But whether it was an offer to help with her studies, resolve a dispute with her fellow cadets or an innocent invitation for tea, Cadet Roland rebuffed me at every turn. Ursula was so frosty, she even began to ignore me whenever I tried to start a conversation; sometimes she would just leave the room the moment I showed up! Can you imagine my heartache?"
"I was on a scholarship and focused on my studies, not socialising," Ursula stridently said in her defence, her cheeks slightly tinged with blush at having her past revealed. "Also… I thought you were just making fun of me. You didn't exactly have a reputation for being a serious student… More like you were the frivolous, troublemaking queen of the academy."
"Well, I can't exactly argue with that…" Vega acknowledged with a quiet chuckle and actually looked rather pleased with the description. "But I did finally manage to befriend you towards the end of my graduating year."
"Yes… miraculously," said Ursula and some melancholy worked its way into her face as she recalled that unforgettable year. "If I hadn't been so close-minded, maybe we could have been friends sooner…"
Sharing some kind of private memory between themselves, Ursula and Vega stared at once another with mysterious smiles on their faces. Obviously misunderstanding something, Claudia gasped and looked between the two women like she had made the discovery of the century. Charlotte, however, was all too familiar with this 'in their own world' scene and her cheeks slowly puffed out like red pastries before the jealous pilot decided to burst their bubble.
"That's… That's such a waste!" she cut in, releasing all her pent-up frustration while jabbing her finger in Ursula's direction. "You got to attend the academy with Lady Vega but never took advantage of it? Not only that, you even spurned her advances?! Don't you know how many fans would kill to be in your place?! I'm… I'm so jealous! If it were me, I would have stuck to Lady Vega's side twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week!"
"As if you don't already…" Ursula whispered, wincing as Charlotte suppressed a high-pitched scream.
"I have to agree; you were so lucky, Ursula!" Claudia declared, albeit with a more playful tone compared to Charlotte's. "Although I suppose there was much more to attending the academy for you than being Vega's underclasswoman. Speaking of which, did your sister not wish to follow in your footsteps and become a pilot?"
"My sister?" Ursula repeated, wondering which one the princess spoke of before remembering she attended the Dragnel School for Ladies. "Ah, you mean my sister Ingrid. No, she is clever and sensible – much more than I – and procured a scholarship for the Dragnel School for Ladies so as not to worry our mother. You are familiar with my sister, Your Highness?"
"Miss Ingrid is well-known for always scoring the highest marks across her subjects and for having a rather frosty character. Truly, it would seem you are sisters through and through…" Claudia giggled and even Vega chuckled, causing Ursula to blush. "We are not well-acquainted but perhaps, like Vega, I shall endeavour to change that…"
"I'm sure she would be honoured to make Your Highness' acquaintance," said Ursula, smiling even as she made a mental note to warn her unsociable younger sister as soon as humanly possible. "It is interesting, however; when you asked about my sister and the academy; I thought you were referring to my other younger sister Beatrix. It is she who would like to enrol next year and become a pilot, you see."
"Oh my! And will she?" Claudia asked.
"No… I have forbidden it. While she is talented as a technopath, our family has already gone through enough tragedy," Ursula explained with a sombre frown, only to break into a chuckle when she realised how familiar this must sound to the princess. "As you can imagine, it is something of a sore point between us sisters. But after listening to Your Highness and Charlotte, perhaps I should have another talk with her. She should be allowed to follow her dreams just like I was allowed to follow mine…"
"I see. I sincerely hope you can come to an understanding," Claudia smiled, feeling she could identify with the sisters.
"As the older sibling, it is only natural for you to want to protect your sister… but not at the expense of her aspirations…" Vega nodded as if she understood Ursula's conundrum before her eyes lit up behind her sunglasses. "…Ah! I have it; you need only win the war before young Beatrix graduates. Then you can let her pursue her mobile suit piloting dreams without fear for her safety."
"Yes, and I suppose you know when the war is going to end, do you?" Ursula deadpanned and went back to drinking her soda. Vega only smiled.
"How dare you doubt Lady Vega, you… you hypocrite!" cried Charlotte who had been scowling at the captain this entire time since hearing about her sister Beatrix.
"Shut up, you… you shrimp!" Ursula shot back and Charlotte's jaw fell to the ground with shock at the forbidden insult. "You sound like my sister!"
While the blonde and brunette argued back and forth, Claudia checked her watch and sighed.
"I suppose we should head back now… We wouldn't want the colonel to catch us," she said, contemplating her last moments of freedom with a distant look.
"Why? The day is still young," Vega swayed the princess with a roguish grin and a glint of her red sunglasses. "Come, I know a place – the perfect ending to our adventure."
"Really?" Claudia enquired with an eager expression before her tone turned cautious. "…Are you driving?"
"Don't worry; I'll drive slow this time."
Unfortunately, the Scarlet Wolf's idea of 'slow' was still hair-raisingly fast. The only discernible difference Ursula could tell as they zigzagged through Dragnel traffic again with their hearts in their mouths was that it was punctuated by less screaming this time. She had to wonder how the princess' security detail kept up with Vega's madcap driving which threw caution to the wind, and as such never noticed as the scenery around them changed.
The high-rise buildings disappeared, replaced by more modest brick and stone abodes, and the busy traffic evaporated until they were the only car on the road. Without the hubbub of the city, it was extraordinarily peaceful and Vega slowed down so her passengers could admire the suburbs as she took them further towards the edge of Dragnel's dome. Finally, they drove through a dilapidated shopping district that had seen better days and parked in front of an old venue. With faded colours, paint peeling off its walls, taped up windows and only a few working light bulbs on its storefront, the purpose of the shabby venue was a mystery to Claudia until Vega informed her.
"Ah, my old haunt – the Cosmo Arcade!"
They stepped inside and the princess was confronted by lights, sounds and smells she had never encountered before in her life. Half bewildered and half captivated, Claudia gawked at the rows of colourful cabinets as they played vibrant videos on their pixelated displays and her ears were assaulted by a jumble of catchy tunes all at once. This would not do… She knew wasn't supposed to be in places like this – not the Imperial Princess of Lux. But when the redhead saw all the different buttons, joysticks and controls, her hands twitched and her pulse quickened. She turned to Vega with a hesitant face, as if asking if this was okay, and the woman grinned.
For the next few hours, Vega personally schooled Claudia in the engrossing diversion that was arcade gaming of which the noblewoman was surprisingly knowledgeable. Charlotte helped too – or showed off rather – while Ursula turned out to be as inexperienced as the princess. Claudia would never forget the feeling of excitement as she manipulated falling blocks, the satisfaction as she shot down an alien invasion or the rush as she raced the others in three-dimensional go-karts.
Long without an outlet for her technopathic abilities, the princess was finally able to spread her wings at the arcade and she especially enjoyed the nuances of those so-called 'fighting games'. She was just getting the hang of it when Charlotte intruded using the machine behind and wiped the floor with Claudia's character. To ease the sting of her loss, she tried her hand at the claw crane next only to learn the spirit of endless frustration – as did an irate Charlotte when she tried to 'show her how it's done' – until Vega came along and won three wolf plushies in a row for all of them.
Games that required cooperation, however, were no doubt Claudia's favourite – when they all shared a common goal. It made for some good memories, brawling through levels and armies of goons as a team, succeeding, laughing and failing together. In particular, there was one game which – despite shocking the princess' sensibilities – she found herself growing rather addicted to…
"Die, foul undead!" Claudia shouted as she blew out the brains of another zombie and splattered the giant screen with blood. "Go back to hell where you belong!"
"Princess! You're a natural!" Vega laughed while holding her gun one-handed and together they blazed through wave after wave of the undead. However, in the booth next door, a certain duo was discovering their teamwork was not quite as fluid…
"I-It's not dying! What do I do?!"
"Aim for the head! When you see a zombie, you aim for the head; it's just common sense!" Charlotte snapped, pulling her trigger rapidly as Ursula's incompetence forced her to do most of the work before a loud beep caused her to groan. "No, that's a civilian!"
"What?! They all look the same!"
"Are you blind?! How can you suck so much at this despite being a technopath?!"
"Shut up! This gun's sight is off! Now if this were the cockpit of a Warg…"
The odd couple continued to argue while picking off the zombie hoard until their lives ran out and they both left the Planet of the Dead booth exhausted. Vega and Claudia, however, finished the game with lives to spare and celebrated with a high five.
"I didn't know killing the undead was so… so thrilling!" the princess gleefully exclaimed before grasping her chin in thought. "Perhaps I could acquire some cabinets for the school…?"
"Unfortunately, I suspect the Dragnel School for Ladies would frown at the mere suggestion; at least, that was my experience back at the academy," Vega chuckled and smoothed back her silver forelocks. "I recall when the instructors caught me trying to sneak the machine into my dorm room through the window… For once, I couldn't talk my way out of something! But at least I could still come to the Cosmo every now and again."
"How do you even know this place?" Ursula asked, finally raising an eyebrow at Vega's in-depth knowledge of the arcade and its machines. "Wait, those academy rumours about you sneaking out at night… Is this where you were?"
"Very astute, Ursula! This was my little sanctuary during my years at the academy. Oh, the long nights I spent here crushing other players while my loyal roommate covered for me at the dorm… Good times," Vega laughed to herself and cast an affectionate gaze over the arcade – which was completely deserted except for them – while Ursula heaved a heavy sigh. "It's slightly more run-down than I remember but the charm is still undeniably present. I fondly recall they used to serve the most delicious donuts at the nearby café which… is still operating! Oh, glorious! You must try them! Wait here; I shall return shortly with cinnamon delights that will send your tastebuds over the moon!"
With a spring in her step, Vega marched out to procure them snacks from across the road, leaving the other three behind. While they were wondering what to do, Ursula felt someone tap her on the shoulder.
"If you haven't noticed already, all the high score places have been taken by the same person…" Charlotte told her and gestured towards the row of cabinets which had the name 'VMA' on repeat.
"You're kidding me…" Ursula's mouth opened with astonishment and she shook her head. "I knew she was competitive but this… this is something else…"
"She called it her sanctuary… but from what, I wonder..." Claudia whispered, staring at the initials with concern.
"What are you all acting so surprised for? This is nothing for someone of Lady Vega's talents! Back in the city I used to live in, I marked all the arcades with my name too," Charlotte bragged with her nose pointed in the air and her hands on her hips before her expression turned quizzical. "But I wonder what the 'M' stands for?"
"Madelynn. Vega Madelynn Aurelia," Claudia kindly informed the shorter girl and smiled. "Vega's mother was a famous soprano, did you know?"
"O-Of course I know! I know everything about Lady Vega!" the young prodigy snapped and turned on her heels to hide her pink cheeks.
While Claudia giggled and chased after the blonde embodiment of a temper tantrum, Ursula pondered the portrait of the beautiful, raven-haired woman she had seen in the entrance hall of Aurelia Manor. Lady Madelynn Aurelia… She couldn't put her finger on it but there was something off about that painting. Her thoughts were interrupted, however, when a joyous squeal pierced her eardrums and the captain sighed before going to see what all the fuss was about.
"What is it now?" Ursula asked, her tone inflected with exasperation. She found Charlotte and Claudia standing in front of a black, cockpit-like cabinet which was shinier than the others and strangely familiar.
"It's… It's the WS-3000!" Charlotte exclaimed, almost speechless as she hopped into the seat like she was mounting a living creature.
"The WS-3000!" Charlotte shouted again before she saw their blank expressions and realised she was talking to a pair of fun-deprived nobles. "The Warg Simulator 3000 is the premier of all mobile suit simulators! A replica cockpit, responsive controls, haptic feedback, realistic physics and environments – the WS-3000 is as close to the real thing as you can get! I knew it was out but I never expected to see it in this backwoods arcade…"
"Eh… Really?" Ursula reacted with wary scepticism. "It can't be as accurate as our military-grade simulators. In the end, it's just a toy, isn't it?"
"A-A toy?! How dare you! I'll have you know the previous model not only earned me my scholarship, it served as a valuable practice partner until graduation!" the young prodigy barked with offence before returning her attention to the cabinet. "Of course, it was heavily modified with some help from Pavel but it was as good as any simulator you nobles use… Now, let me show you just what this 'toy' can do!"
Charlotte inserted a coin and the cabinet lit up with bright lights and repetitive, synthesised music. Watching the pair from behind, Claudia smothered a giggle as they continued to argue back and forth throughout the mission. Despite their differences, they were like sisters and the princess couldn't help but feel a little jealous; due to her position, no one ever talked to her like that. Sensing a photo opportunity, she searched for her Haro and found it rolling away from the group.
"Mister Haro?" she called out to the autonomous red ball and walked towards it.
"Haro! Haro!" cried the Haro before it rolled into a door which unexpectedly swung open on its well-oiled hinges and the robot was sent tumbling down a set of stairs. "Harooooooo!"
Before Claudia knew what she was doing, she was bounding down the stairs after the disappearing Haro. It was dark and faulty lights flickered overhead but she persisted, descending to the sounds of her own footfalls as they echoed against the solid concrete steps. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she reached a brightly lit doorway at the bottom of the stairs and burst out into an open street. As the redhead stopped to get her bearings and catch her breath, she inhaled a whiff of something foul and began to cough uncontrollably. With hand on mouth, the princess' confused red eyes took notice of her surroundings at last and she gasped.
The tranquil streets of suburban Dragnel had suddenly been transformed into a filthy, ramshackle shantytown of makeshift homes and derelict buildings. Everywhere Claudia looked, trash and rubble littered the streets, windows that were not broken were boarded up and marred by graffiti, and a toxic pink smog filled the air. Like Alice in Wonderland, it felt as if she had emerged from a rabbit hole to another world – only it was not Wonderland that she had discovered but a devastated version of Dragnel.
The people she saw did not fare much better. Despite wearing masks and face coverings to protect against the pink smog, Claudia could hear the sounds of coughing and hacking constantly, and a pall of sickness pervaded the entire area. The populace appeared to brave the outdoors anyway to crowd inside alleyways; at least, that was how it seemed until the princess realised with shock that these were the homeless in search of warmth which their tattered clothing could not provide.
As the reality set in that this grim otherworld was real, Claudia began to regain her sense of danger – no more so than when she noticed her well-clothed presence was attracting odd stares and hushed whispers. Feeling like an outsider for once, the disguised royal wrapped her free arm protectively around her timorous body and tried to remember what she was doing there. She never noticed the hand reaching out for her until she felt a touch and almost jumped with fright.
"Claudia," a familiar voice whispered. The startled princess turned to find it was Vega grasping her by the shoulder and she breathed a long sigh of relief. A concerned Ursula and Charlotte were also with the ace and, as they closed ranks around the royal, Claudia realised they must have come looking for her.
"Here, put this on," said Charlotte, taking something out of her wolf-backpack and handing it to Claudia. It was a mask and the princess realised they were all wearing one. She quickly put it on, covering her mouth and nose, and felt her lungs fill with fresh oxygen free of the noxious gas and its irritating sting.
"…What is this place?" Claudia asked, returning her gaze to the shantytown after steadying herself with a few deep breaths.
"The slums," Vega solemnly informed the naïve princess, keeping her emotions hidden behind her sunglasses. "Those without the fortune or means to reside on the Dragnel plateau have always been forced to live on the edges of the city, squeezing into the plains below where the air is poorer. But this is the first I've heard of the slums spreading to the inside of the dome."
"They say the war and the recession have sent many citizens below the poverty line," Ursula suggested gravely. "Not to mention the conditions in the settlements outside the dome have gotten worse. By taking refuge here, these people are just trying to survive…"
"That… That's dreadful…" Claudia whispered, almost speechless as she cursed her own ignorance. "And this… this pink smog? They are forced to breathe this, even here?"
"It's magenta oxide… or cherry blossom clouds," Charlotte told her with a low voice and the shorter girl's humourless face did not look at all surprised at the dire scene before them. "It's a native gas that usually settles on the lowlands because it's heavier than air but Lux's strong winds blow it around the planet like pink clouds. That's why it's safest to live in a domed city because no matter how high you build a settlement a cherry blossom storm could still ruin your day."
"I see… but then why is it inside Dragnel's dome?" Claudia asked Charlotte who seemed to have experience in these matters but it was Vega who answered instead.
"Frozen magenta oxide in the ground," the silver-haired woman explained. "It melts and seeps into the air if it's disturbed by human activity or even just when the weather's warm enough like it is today. Dragnel was built on an underground magenta lake but its founders were sadly unaware of that fact three centuries ago."
Charlotte nodded in agreement, her attention occupied by something other than her beloved Lady Vega for once.
"All the oldest Lux cities have the same problem… Still, it's not as bad as the cities without domes," she noted as her tone grew increasingly grim. "Breathing in CBC for one day might make you feel sick for a while but if you breathe in enough of it for long enough… it will kill you." Charlotte paused before speaking again in a low whisper. "…That's how my parents died…"
Ursula had already known Charlotte's parents were deceased but that was the first time she'd heard the young prodigy speak of them of her own volition. Both the captain and the princess looked at the blonde with concern only to find her red eyes staring straight ahead with unwavering strength. It was a stark reminder that, despite her childish appearance, Charlotte was a grown woman with grit who had gone through more than any child should.
"If I recall, you used to live in one of the industrial cities, correct?" Vega asked when no one else would speak.
"Vipera city. But before that I lived in one of its satellite mining towns," Charlotte nodded and became surprisingly talkative as she started to recount her past. "My parents said the nobles and mining corporations promised everyone a new life there but they worked the adults like slaves and valued profits over safety. On top of that, life on the frontier was harsh; clean water and medicine were scarce, and cherry blossom storms would strike without warning. Everyone who lived there eventually got pink lung… including my parents." Charlotte's voice hardened at the memory. "After they died, I was sent to the town orphanage but ran away and stowed aboard a transport headed to Vipera. I thought I could escape my parent's fate in a domed city but Vipera's slums were a cesspool of daily CBC emissions. That's when I decided to join LIRA. No matter what, I was going to survive, I told myself…"
"Oh, Charlotte…" Claudia whispered the girl's name with tears in her eyes. "I didn't know… I didn't know you had been through so much…"
"Geh…! W-What are you making me say?! I don't want your pity–Gah?!" Charlotte yelped, swinging from embarrassment to fright when the princess suddenly hugged her. "S-Stop it! You're creeping me out!"
"There, there… You're so strong and brave," Claudia patted the petrified girl's head and whispered before pulling back to look into her cat-like eyes. "…I can't believe you're younger than me."
Hearing that, Charlotte's face boiled to an angry red hue and she almost seemed to breathe fire as she tongue-lashed the princess.
"I'm nineteen! I'm older than you, you entitled matchstick!" she shouted and would have taken a swing at the redhead if Ursula hadn't grabbed her from behind.
"Oh my…" Claudia covered her mouth in surprise as the smaller girl flailed her arms at empty space before a familiar robotic cry coming from the ground at her feet seized her attention. "Haro!"
The red ball hopped into the princess' arms and, finding the pet unharmed, she hugged it tight. Seeing Claudia and the Haro reunited, Vega chuckled and moved to put her arm around the princess.
"I think you've had enough adventure for one day, Your Highness," she suggested and guided Claudia back towards the arcade.
As the group turned around to leave the slums, Claudia looked up and caught sight of Dragnel's prosperous business district in the distance with its towering skyscrapers. The gleaming obelisks with their flashing lights were visible through the cherry blossom clouds, and the silhouette of Dragnel Castle rose above the city on the mountain like a castle floating in the sky. Staring at her lofty home, Claudia thought of the privilege and opulence she would be returning to while those less fortunate would remain in this world of poverty and sickness. The princess felt her stomach churn and bit her lip.
"Is there really nothing we can do…?" she whispered, stopping to take one last look at the slums with a strained expression on her face.
"I'm afraid not," said Vega, following Claudia's gaze. "This is the way of Lux, where the weak are ruled by the powerful. To change it would be to change the empire itself…"
Contemplating the taller woman's words, Claudia lingered for a moment longer before going inside with her head held down. Vega soon joined her... but not before pausing at the doorway and looking back with a tiny smile that was hidden by her mask.
"…And change, my dear princess, is just destruction by another name."
The drive back to the Venus Hotel was a quiet affair. After what they had witnessed at the slums, all four women appeared to be lost in thought and occupied themselves by munching on the donuts Vega had bought. When the red sports car pulled up to the hotel's street, however, they found the road blocked by a traffic jam and hundreds of drivers were honking their horns.
"What's going on?" asked Charlotte, trying to see over the other cars by standing on her tiptoes.
"It looks like there's been an accident… right in front of the hotel's parking entrance," said Ursula, squinting her brown eyes at an immobile blue van with its blinkers on. "We're not getting back into the penthouse through the car lift, that's for sure."
"W-What? But if we use the main elevator, the imperial guards will catch us… Colonel Wallace will catch us!" Claudia objected as her perfect teeth chattered with panic. Of course, the colonel already knew the princess wasn't in the penthouse but before anyone could consider exposing the ruse, Vega spoke up.
"Then we'll just have to wait somewhere until the accident is resolved," the silver-haired woman humoured Claudia with a smile before her gaze settled on the building next to the hotel. "What about there?"
The building Vega was referring to was easily identifiable thanks to the giant neon letters spelling out its name: Venus Mall, the sister tower to the Venus Hotel. Following a hotel and mall business strategy, the two were constructed next to one another to increase revenue and the Venus Mall was one of Lux's most popular shopping destinations. Hearing a chorus of agreement, Vega parked in the mall's underground lot and the quartet explored the lavish variety of shops on the upper floors.
Aside from the sky bridges which linked the twin towers, the mall's other most noteworthy feature was its open-air design which allowed shoppers to see all the way up to its retractable glass roof. While Claudia and Charlotte scurried around the railed walkways like children, admiring the grand view above and below, Vega and Ursula hung just behind them. They probably looked like another family to the other shoppers – of which there were many since it was the year-end holidays – but as they blended in with the crowd it did not escape the attention of the LIRA pilots that something was wrong.
"Major…" Ursula whispered to Vega, gesturing behind them with her pupils.
"I know…" Vega whispered back, peering at the two men following them from the corner of her red sunglasses. "It appears we have some unwanted admirers…"
"They're not part of the princess' security detail… Speaking of which, where are they?" Ursula hissed while trying to appear calm.
"I believe we lost them on the road some time ago…" said Vega, making no mention of her erratic driving as her subordinate stifled a groan. "However, together with the accident in front of the hotel, I do not believe this is a coincidence…"
The worrying suggestion caused Ursula to narrow her eyes. After dozens of battles, she knew to trust the Scarlet Wolf's instincts.
"What should we do?"
"Follow my lead," Vega smiled and looped her arm through Ursula's, almost causing the red-faced woman to cry out. "Oh, children! Come to your mothers!"
Although Claudia and Charlotte gawked at their 'parents' like they had gone mad, they obliged and the group convened in a standing huddle. After a brief exchange, during which Vega and Ursula made sure to shield the younger girls' expressions using their bodies, the quartet briskly walked away into the nearby crowd and their pursuers followed. While the women did not quite vanish into the swarm of shoppers, the men struggled to keep pace and only just caught sight of the group as they disappeared down an empty corridor towards the public restrooms.
"V-Vega…! What's going on?" Claudia exclaimed, finding herself in a stall together with the noblewoman after she had been unceremoniously pulled inside.
"Shh…" Vega silenced the flushed princess by placing a finger on her lips. "We're about to have company…"
Before she could utter another word, Claudia heard the door to the women's restroom burst open and she instinctively froze. The royal did not know how she knew but the heavy footsteps coming their way did not sound friendly in the least. As the stalkers drew closer, Claudia grabbed Vega's arm and squeezed against her.
"Vega…" she whispered fearfully.
"It's okay…" Vega calmly replied and placed a reassuring hand on Claudia's trembling fingers. "Just leave this to Ursula and Charlotte…"
"Ursula and… Charlotte…?"
Claudia mouthed the names in confusion, particularly the last one, before the footsteps stopped and she held her breath. A pair of men's shoes were just visible underneath the stall entrance. The princess quickly covered her mouth, not daring to make a sound even as her own heartbeat pounded in her ears. Finally, after what seemed like an age, the intruder shifted his stance sideways in a telltale sign he was about to break down the door. Claudia gasped and clutched Vega's arm even tighter.
Suddenly, a battle cry reverberated inside the restroom and all hell broke loose. To Claudia's confused ears, it sounded as if a one-sided brawl was happening just outside the stall but all she could see were shadows and feet blending together underneath the door. She heard cries of alarm from two men, loud grunts from two familiar women, and the savage crunch of metal being bent out of shape before everything went quiet.
At Ursula's direction, Vega nonchalantly unlocked the door and Claudia gasped at the scene that awaited them. The two men were literally down for the count and lying prone on the restroom floor, bloodied, bruised and unconscious. One looked as if someone had used his face as a punching bag while the other couldn't even be identified due to the steel hand dryer which he now wore over his head like a helmet. Charlotte, who stood with one foot on top of the latter, grinned triumphantly as she admired her handiwork.
"As you can see, Your Highness, Ursula is an expert and certified instructor of close-quarters combat," Vega proudly gestured to Ursula, and Claudia gulped as the brunette cracked her knuckles. "And amongst the Space Wolves, Charlotte is her star pupil."
"That's what you get for underestimating me!" Charlotte goaded her helmeted victim even though he clearly couldn't answer back.
"You didn't… kill them, did you?" Claudia asked, peering over the men with concern. Haro, who had been in hiding, began bouncing on the bodies of the unconscious men as if it was performing a victory dance.
"No, we just knocked them out," said Ursula only to alarm the princess by producing two semi-automatic pistols which she presented to Vega with a narrowed gaze. "They were armed, Major. These are no ordinary thugs… I think they're soldiers."
"Lady Vega, look at this!"
Charlotte beckoned them over and they saw the girl had rolled up the men's sleeves to reveal two identical tattoos on their forearms – a black sword against a round sun. The sight of the curved blades caused both Vega and Ursula to frown, something that was not lost on Claudia.
"What is it? Who are they?" she asked, grabbing her Haro and holding it close.
"They're from the Outer Rim…" Vega whispered, crouching down to study the markings. "But this tattoo…"
The ace trailed off in thought, causing both Claudia and Charlotte to cock their heads in confusion. But before Vega or Ursula could explain any further, a gunshot rang out from deep within the mall. Instantly, their heads whipped around back towards the restroom door and what they heard coming from the other side chilled the women to their bones.
Gunfire. Screams. More gunfire. A stampede as thousands fled for their lives from some unknown danger. But it was not unknown to Vega. She had heard enough. While the others were still in shock, she got to her feet and grabbed one of the pistols.
"The Dawn Blades," the Scarlet Wolf warned as she readied the weapon in her hands. "The Dawn Blades have come to Lux…"
END OF PART B
Well, it happened again... I can't believe this but there will be a Part C to finish off Episode 17. But I guess more Vega is good, right? Anyway, I hope you enjoyed more slice of Lux life and look forward to the action next chapter!