It was a strange scenario. The Five Columns, once regarded as the wise and reserved moderators of the Otome system, one day abruptly announced their intentions to forcibly unite all the countries of Earl in a hostile takeover and proclaimed war against the world. They even managed to take the nearby Castle Windbloom by surprise while its queen was performing diplomatic duties. Neither the ruler or her Otome were able to re-enter the kingdom after the Columns had closed Garderobe Academy, their main base within Windbloom, for their own use and invaded the castle. However, the planet's royalty had still scoffed at idea of surrendering to an enemy using such a ridiculous campaign. After all, how long could five snobbish girls keep up a war of this magnitude?
Akane sighed to herself as she reminisced on the events up until now. Earlier that morning, Chaldea's intelligence network had detected one of the five Columns launching from Garderobe Academy, apparently en route to Chaldea's castle. Akane floated idly in her country's airspace, donned in her Meister Robe with her tonfa at her side, awaiting the incoming attack. To a casual observer, she probably looked like she was going to freeze to death at such an altitude, as the Pure Heart Malachite combat suit left Akane's belly and upper back rather exposed. However, the nanomachines that powered the outfit kept a constant supply of comfortable warmth coursing through her body, in addition to making her very flesh impenetrable to virtually anything but the weapons of other Otome.
Akane was wary of the idea of possibly being forced to kill her former instructors and classmates in battle, but she reaffirmed herself by thinking of the kingdom she had to defend. Emperor Kazuya Krau-xeku was her Lord as well as her lover, and his life was at stake if she failed to defend the kingdom. They would surely be married after Akane had served long enough to retire. She was fighting for his life as well as her own happiness.
Akane was brought out of her wandering thoughts when the mechanical feline ears protruding from her hairband began to twitch. Although playful in appearance, they functioned as directional microphones and gave Akane the ability to hear incoming sounds at a great distance. The nanomachines of the Meister Robe bounded them to Akane's natural senses, and to her it was just like having a second, more efficient set of ears.
Akane turned toward the source of a distant, jet-like whistling sound. She noted a small dot flying towards her in the empty blue sky. The dot eventually became a small, purple-clad figure, and the indistinct figure eventually became Meister Shizuru Viola.
The most battle-experienced of the Columns, Shizuru wielded her signature extending naginata firmly in both hands. Despite a sudden sense of anxiety, Akane raised her tonfa in a combat pose and quickly engaged in battle.
Akane stood her ground and allowed Shizuru to fly closer toward her. The metallic rings on Akane's ankles, wrists, and neck began to glow softly as she prepared to parry Shizuru's attack. She raised her tonfa to her face in a boxing position and continued to steadily float in place. When Shizuru was finally in melee range, Akane quickly repositioned herself a few inches lower in the air and raised her tonfa above her head. Shizuru's naginata swung through the air and only clashed against the metal wall Akane had created with her own weapons. Shizuru was thrown back in a short recoil, giving Akane an open advantage to attack.
Akane reserved her aggression and decided not to attack just yet. In response, Shizuru's next attack came when she flew above Akane's head and swung her naginata downward with enough force to breach Akane's tonfa barricade. Akane was fast enough to avoid this attack, however, and she left Shizuru swinging at empty air.
Shizuru was now positioned in the sky directly below Akane, with her back facing the dodging fighter. Seeing this as the opening she was waiting for, Akane answered with a swooping kick aimed between Shizuru's shoulder blades. Such a move surely would have paralyzed Shizuru for the remainder of the battle, but she stopped the attack with lightning reflex by spinning around toward Akane and launching the naginata's segmented chain mechanism at the enemy Otome. As a result, the chain tangled around Akane's legs, then her arms and torso. These restraints caused Akane to drop her tonfa, and they quickly disappeared and returned to stasis shortly after leaving her grip.
Shizuru smiled to herself and admired her work as she held the hilt of her naginata with one hand. The extended chain had pinned Akane's legs together, pinned her arms to her sides, and ended with a firm knot around her neck. Only the dull sides of each bladed segment squeezed against her, so it wasn't lethal for the time being. With only a small tug, however, Shizuru could instantly break her opponent's neck, or worse.
Akane struggled hopelessly to free her arms. She yelped in pain as Shizuru tauntingly pulled the chain and further tightened its grip around her captive. The chain was particularly tight around Akane's bare flesh thanks to the Pure Heart Malachite Robe's generous cleavage, which obviously did nothing to relieve her discomfort. Shizuru only delighted at her enemy's misery.
"Kittens shouldn't play with snakes, foolish girl."
Despite Akane's continued resistance, Shizuru began speaking sternly, knowing her opponent had no realistic hope of escape.
"I would kill you right now, but you've survived this long, so your ability might be of some use to the Columns."
Shizuru extended her free hand into the air, and in it appeared a syringe filled with clear liquid. She brought the syringe to Akane's eye level and began to speak more calmly.
"You have the options of dying here, right now, or surrendering to us. And if you choose the latter option, this shot will guarantee your loyalty. This new serum Garderobe has developed will interact with your nanomachines, essentially reprogramming you so you'll never disobey orders from the Five Columns. As an added benefit, it will bind certain features your Meister Robe normally provides to your genetic code. In other words, you'll always be able to use certain features of your Robe even when you're not in Materialized form."
Shizuru grinned mischievously as she carefully rolled the syringe between her thumb and index finger and continued to speak.
"We're not exactly sure how much the serum will change you, however. We designed it this way because we plan to turn as many Meister Otome as possible to our side before this war ends, but the Column system only allows a limited number of provisional Meister-level connections at the moment."
Shizuru's subtly taunting tone never faded from her voice. She knew her prey was at her mercy and would never be able to divulge Garderobe's secrets no matter what choice she made.
"To be honest, I was the one who suggested we use you as our first test subject, Akane. You were my best student when you graduated from Garderobe, so I pray you'll make the right choice."
Akane hovered in place, helplessly bound by Shizuru's weapon and unable to do anything but listen to her captor's speech. She only became further agitated by the shallow attempt at flattery, causing her to curse her captor and continue to struggle. Shizuru shook her head in disappointment and continued speaking.
"Why are you still fighting? Don't you understand what this war is about? By conquering all of the neighboring kingdoms, the entire world will be united under one flag. A few sacrifices may need to be made, but it's all for peace; a lasting peace the current world will never truly support. The countries ultimately only care about their own needs. You of all people should realize what we're doing is right, Akane. You were left to defend Chaldea completely by yourself because the other kingdoms didn't want to involve their own Otome in foreign matters."
Akane suddenly felt unsure of herself, but continued struggling against her entanglements.
"You're insane, Shizuru! The... the other rulers stayed out of this because they know I'm strong enough to beat you myself!"
Shizuru sneered at her enemy's response.
"Is that what you really think? Say what you want. Please bear in mind, though, the only way to leave this battle alive is to do as I say."
Akane turned her head as far away as the restraint around her neck would allow. She quietly considered her fate, pondering the likelihood of escaping Shizuru's trap. If she surrendered, there was a chance the injection wouldn't work, and she could escape at a later time. Both options were very dangerous.
Akane's squirming subsided, and she hung her head in shame as she quietly spoke.
Shizuru smiled with satisfaction and allowed her trap to loosen slightly. She gently pulled on the chain to bring Akane close enough for the injection. Akane responded with an obvious look of anxiety, trying to remind herself that she had better chances listening to Shizuru than she did resigning herself to certain death.
"Smart girl. Now, just relax. This shouldn't hurt any more than when you first had your nanomachines installed."
With Akane still held in place by the tangled naginata chain, Shizuru inserted the needle just below the frightened girl's left shoulder. So far, everything was working just as it should. The needle was specially designed to puncture an Otome's nanomachine shielding, and the clear contents of the syringe entered Akane's system without resistance. When she was finished, Shizuru pulled away from the defeated Otome and quietly observed her reaction.
Akane was quickly overcome by weariness. Her eyes grew heavy as she heard Shizuru quietly laugh. Her head drowsily slumped downward, and she felt the chain restraint being completely removed from her arms and legs. When Akane drifted into a peaceful sleep, the anti-gravity rings on her ankles and wrists destabilized, and her unconscious form would have been left to plummet thousands of feet below if Shizuru hadn't been inches away to catch her.
A week had passed since Chaldea lost contact with their Meister Otome.
"Lady Shizuru, here's the prisoner you requested."
Two Coral Otome dragged Emperor Kazuya into Garderobe Academy's courtyard. His bruised face showed signs of days of interrogation and beating. He had been captured easily, as there was no way for his kingdom to retaliate or even defend itself from invasion as long as its Otome was missing. He looked up from a forced kneeling position and stared at the uniformed Five Columns standing in front of him, struggling to keep a black eye open.
"You bitches. You haven't even told me what I'm charged of!"
The group of young women only laughed at the powerless Emperor. Mahya Blythe, the tan-skinned Column Otome, was first to speak.
"You're guilty of treason against the Columns, of course. Not to mention conspiring to use your Meister to rebel against us."
Natsuki, the blue-haired Otome, stepped forward and kicked Kazuya in the gut. She taunted him as he lay groaning on the floor.
"Consider yourself lucky. Normally we don't even take the time to explain ourselves to criminals like you before their execution."
Kazuya was overcome with dread at those words, but held on to the hope that Akane was coming to rescue him. After all, if the Columns had killed her, there was no way he could still be alive. Natsuki turned to Shizuru as Kazuya sluggishly climbed back to his knees and silently questioned his fate.
"We've said enough, Shizuru. Send for the executioner."
Shizuru calmly nodded.
"Very well, my Lady."
Shizuru left the courtyard as the remaining four Columns stayed to make sure the prisoner made no attempt to escape. A few minutes after Shizuru left, another, shorter figure emerged from the same doorway. Despite his damaged eyesight, Kazuya recognized the new girl's brown bob cut almost instantly, and a new expression of hope appeared on his face.
"Akane, you're here..."
As she came closer, he saw she was wearing her formal Meister uniform. When she reached the center of the courtyard and stood alongside the four Columns, Kazuya realized what he first blamed on his blurred eyesight was something he was actually seeing. Atop Akane's head were two black cat ears, and emerging from the back of her miniskirt was a white cat tail with black stripes on its tip. She looked down at the captive Emperor curiously, tilting her head to the side as her new set of ears twitched with excitement.
"Huh. Who's he?"
Dread returned to Kazuya's face.
"Akane, what did they do to you?!"
The Emperor desperately cried to his former Otome.
"N-nevermind! Let's get out of here!"
Akane answered his pleading with only the same curious expression as before. She stepped forward and gently knelt on her knees, being careful not to stretch her dark pantyhose. She was at eye level with the pleading Emperor, and she crawled onto all fours as she leaned closer to his face. Her tail waved into a slow pattern as her nostrils gently flared.
"Hmm. Your scent is a little familiar. Have we met?"
Natsuki abruptly stomped her foot to gain Akane's attention. So far, the injection had worked perfectly and Akane had lost all memory of her previous self, but there were some minor doubts that too much socializing with past relationships may reverse the psychological effects of the process. Akane's tail stood up with surprise at the noise, and she curiously looked over her shoulder.
"Akane, enough! You know what we need you to do."
Akane frowned at Natsuki's words.
"Aww, but can't I at least play with him for a few more minutes? He seems funny."
Natsuki shook her head and coldly looked back down on Akane.
"Remember how he tried to hurt Shizuru? It's dangerous if he's alive even a few seconds longer."
Akane continued glancing over her shoulder as her tail waved in a relaxed pattern.
"Are you sure this is the right guy, Lady Natsuki? He looks so harmless. And look, he's already hurt! It wouldn't be fair to kill him right now."
Natsuki's eyes narrowed as she struggled to hold her temper.
"Akane, we told you..."
Shizuru casually stepped back into the courtyard and interrupted Natsuki in a delicate tone.
"With all due respect, Lady Natsuki, I feel she's is right. The prisoner is no danger to us. There's no reason to trample on Meister Akane's curiosity."
This resulted in an expression of surprise from the other four Columns. The five girls quickly gathered in a group and began speaking in hushed voices that Kazuya couldn't hear and Akane, even with her more sensitive ears, was too occupied in her study of the prisoner to notice. Nao had the first objection.
"Shizuru, I know you're having fun with this little experiment and all, but do I need to remind you we don't exactly know if the memory erasure is permanent?"
Shizuru calmly shrugged as she responded.
"And what if it isn't? Her GEM only has a provisional connection to mine. If her original personality returns and she becomes too feisty, we can just terminate the connection."
Mahya objected next.
"But Emperor Kazuya's ring is still bound to his body from Akane's original contract, so it can't be removed as long as he's alive. He might figure out he could just renew his contract with Akane. That would bypass our limit completely."
Shizuru grinned, not wavering from her position in the slightest.
"I've already defeated the poor girl once. She would never risk putting her precious emperor's life on the line again with the five of us constantly around her."
The four other Columns shook their heads in defeat. Natsuki glanced over at Akane, who had now taken to brushing her ear against Kazuya's shoulder and giggling, and waved her hand to signal the group to return to their original positions. She cleared her throat and spoke.
"Very well. Akane, take the prisoner to the guest quarters and treat his injuries. You can have guard duty tonight."
Akane listened to Natsuki attentively and nodded. She climbed to her feet and helped Kazuya back up before slowly guiding him toward Garderobe's bedrooms. Kazuya, completely puzzled by these events and dealing with a painful limp, remained mostly silent along the way.
Night had fallen, and Akane quietly paced through the hallway outside of Kazuya's bedroom. Her ears pointed back as she heard the young man's muffled voice through his door.
"Aka... Meister Akane, my shoulder is hurting again. I think my collarbone might be broken..."
Akane turned toward the voice and opened the door with a worried expression. Her worry quickly turned into surprise as she was roughly pulled into the room. Kazuya quietly closed the door after poking his head out to glance down the hallway, then guided Akane to sit beside him on his bed. He was still wearing his torn imperial trousers, but was otherwise naked except for various bandages placed on his body and face. He let out a soft groan and held his bandaged abdomen as he sat down, but seemed to be feigning his shoulder injury. He turned his head and his eyes peered into Akane's, but she only curiously blinked in return.
"They really did it, didn't they? You don't remember any of it, do you?"
Kazuya spoke in desperation, looking for the slightest hint of hope in Akane's expression. She appeared to have a wondering look in her eyes, but otherwise stared at Kazuya like he was a stranger as she responded.
Kazuya clenched his fists in anger. He had only one chance left, he thought, and all signs pointed to him being dead by the end of this no matter what he did. To Hell with it.
"You said I seemed familiar, right? I hope this sparks your memory..."
Kazuya reached out in a flash and grabbed the back of Akane's head to bring her lips to his. Akane initially squirmed in surprise and resistance, but quickly subsided and closed her eyes. Kazuya could feel a slight tingle under his nose as the girl again took in his scent as she did earlier that day.
Akane's eyes fluttered back open with a new awareness as she continued to be held in the kiss. Kazuya slowly let her go as he noticed this reaction, and her face filled with glee.
"Kazu, it's you..."
She remembered everything up until the moment Shizuru injected her with that shot, and then... her transformation. Akane quickly distanced herself from Kazu, raising her hands to her head to cover her ears and coiling her tail under her skirt.
"No! I must disgust you! I'm a freak!"
Kazuya reached out and slowly guided Akane's hands into her lap. Her tail re-emerged and began waving hypnotically as he did this.
"It's fine, Akane. Do you really think I'm going to hate you for something so simple?"
He reached back to the top of her head and ran his fingers across the soft black fur of her ears. This resulted in Akane closing her eyes and giving off a sigh of delight.
"Besides, you look cute with these."
Kazuya felt fully relieved as he continued to speak.
"Akane, let's get out of here. Everyone else is asleep. We can make it out of here and find somewhere to hide."
Akane responded with a worried look in her face.
"We can't do that. It would only be a matter of time before the Columns find us. We already tried living like that, and it only made things worse. If we stay here and listen to them, they won't hurt either of us."
Kazuya's voice became worried as well.
"They're afraid you're going to use your powers against them, aren't they?"
Akane shook her head.
"Not right now, at least. I Materialize through a connection to Meister Shizuru now, so they could disconnect me any time they wanted."
Kazuya looked toward his ringed hand as he spoke.
"I could try..."
Akane quickly placed her hand over his to bury the ring and interrupted his words, knowing exactly what he was going to say.
"Anything but that! I'd rather live as a prisoner than risk getting you killed again!"
Akane peered down into her lap and slowly came to the conclusion their bid for freedom was hopeless.
"Even if you didn't contract me again right now, I think they're afraid I might use the Pure Heart Malachite at SOME point. The Columns will never let me just run away like this, especially Meister Mahya. Let's just stay here and do what they tell us."
Kazuya had an idea. He slowly lifted his hand to Akane's chin and turned her head toward his.
"Akane, if I... decommissioned you tonight, and we just left the ring and GEM here, they would have no reason to chase us."
A deep blush appeared on Akane's face as she gave an expression of uncertainty. What Kazuya was alluding to was a possibility. An Otome typically retired through marriage and, subsequently, sexual intercourse with her husband. In this case, the protein in Kazuya's sperm would permanently disable the combat capabilities of Akane's nanomachines upon entering her body, and then both Akane's GEM and Kazuya's signet ring would be deactivated entirely and could be removed safely. However, Akane was still left with some doubts.
"What if that just makes the Columns angry? I wouldn't be able to protect you, and they could execute us both."
Kazuya only smiled in response.
"Mahya only found you the first time because of me, right? The Columns War has already voided my power as Emperor, so I'm certain they won't chase us again. This will work."
Akane stared downward nervously, conflicted by her options.
Kazuya watched in disappointment as Akane got off the bed and started walking towards the guestroom door. She stopped before opening the door and spoke.
"I'm sorry, Kazu, but I can't risk losing you again. I'm going to keep helping Shizuru so none of the Columns will hurt you. This is the safest way."
The young ruler's feelings of despair were calmed by Akane's voice, and he eventually nodded in agreement.
"It's alright. I understand, Akane."
Akane gave an uneasy smile as she quietly shut the door.
She returned to her post and continued to guard the hallway for the rest of the night.
It was the morning after Akane's original persona returned. She had nervously revealed to the Columns she was no longer the subdued "pet" the injection had temporarily turned her into, but hid the fact that the Emperor had tried to escape during the night. She offered her full obedience in exchange for Kazuya's safety, and the Columns' reaction was surprisingly positive. They also decided there was no need for further experiments since Akane continued reporting for duty and behaving well. In the following weeks, it soon become apparent that, without regular injections, the biological effects of the loyalty serum were just as temporary as the psychological. Akane's tail gradually shortened in length as her feline ears began painlessly receding back into the shape of human ears. Within a month, there were no signs that she had even been given the mutagen.
The Columns' conquest of Earl had continued in this time, and Shizuru occasionally returned with a fallen Otome that had been given Garderobe's drug. The more stubborn girls were kept in line with a regular routine of treatments, while a few others were encouraged to take the drug to put less strain on Garderobe's Otome system. These defectors, combined with the Corals and Pearls who had chosen to stay loyal to the Columns they idolized when the war began, gave Garderobe a growing military force.
Akane was surprised that her familiar life had gently fallen back into place. She was eventually entrusted with taking a group of the younger girls under her wing and training them in the rules of combat and the etiquette of an Otome (as the Columns dictated, obviously) on a regular basis. She continued to wear her Meister formal uniform and use her Meister Robe in exercises, but she functioned and Materialized in the same fashion as a leading Pearl. Best of all, she was allowed to make daily visits to Kazuya's room, and happily discovered that he was growing comfortable with his unusual surroundings. He had fallen into somewhat of a peril, though, as it was understandably difficult for a bachelor such as himself to constantly cross the paths of young women his age while adhering to the academy's "no touch" policy.
The Columns were becoming increasingly worried of Garderobe's morale as the male guest continued to stay on academy grounds. Furthermore, Windbloom's castle had remained empty under their watch since their initial proclamation of war, and their forces had grown to the point that a political front was practically required. The decision was carefully made to install Kazuya as a puppet King of Windbloom, as he clearly had no intent to be at odds with the Columns as long as Akane was happy, and such a timid ruler would set an example for how the other kingdoms should address the Columns. One of Akane's afternoon visits to the guest chamber was interrupted when the Five Columns stepped through the door, informed the couple of the decision, and summoned them to Castle Windbloom.
The coronation ceremony was held in Windbloom's empty throne room. The only figures standing in the room were the Five Columns, the soon-to-be King of Windbloom, and the Meister Otome who would serve him.
Akane's eyes scanned the ceremonial chamber. She was inspired by the thought of serving as Windbloom's Meister, but she quietly questioned herself. Queen Mashiro and Meister Arika were still in exile, so was it really right to just walk in and take over the kingdom like this? Her thoughts were interrupted as Column Mahya Blythe stepped forward from her group and began a rather truncated version of her ceremonial speech.
"He offers his hand, she kisses the ring, everyone goes home happy. You know the drill."
Mahya's eyes carelessly moved to the person she was addressing as she spoke.
"You're a monarch with no actual political power, and you're forced to serve him as his Meister until I say you've fulfilled your obligation. Nothing you two aren't familiar with."
Akane turned her head to face Mahya, taking offense to her crude words.
"You're wrong, Lady Mahya! Kazu would be a great king if you let him!"
Mahya simply snorted and shook her head.
"Whatever. Just get on with it so we can finally let the nobles back in here."
Akane lowered her objections and turned her attention back to Kazuya. She slowly knelt to one knee as her king lowered his hand to her lips, then closed her eyes and gently kissed the signet ring. She heard her GEM earring begin to softly whir and beep as it released its provisional connection to Shizuru's GEM and recalibrated itself to the energy signature of Kazuya's imperial signet. The contract was complete.
Akane rose back to her feet and turned toward the Columns. This process had ended her doubts and imbued her with a new sense of justice.
Akane bowed politely toward her fellow Otome as King Kazuya nervously sat on his new throne. Akane had decided this was the right thing to do, and she couldn't be happier serving Kazuya. She spoke in a quiet, cheerful tone.
"Is there anything else you need from us, Lady Mahya?"
Mahya gave a satisfied smile at this response. It was about time this girl wised up, the older Column thought to herself.
"The former Queen Mashiro and that lapdog of hers will probably retaliate somehow when they learn of King Kazuya's crowning. Be prepared to fight her Meister without mercy."
Akane nodded in agreement and spoke in the same soft voice.
"Yes, that would definitely be a threat to my lord's power. I'll be ready."
Mahya was pleased by Akane's clear resolve and returned to group of Columns standing behind her. As they left the throne room, Natsuki turned to speak to Akane a final time.
"I'm going to let the nobles know the exchange of power is complete, and your court should be entering in a few minutes. Remember what Mahya said, and I'll let you know if your skills are needed in the meantime."
Akane quietly nodded again as she loyally stood beside her king's throne. In the brief moments the ruler had alone with his bodyguard, he began speaking with doubt in his voice.
"Akane, are you really serious about all of this...?"
She turned toward her beloved king and replied with a gentle assurance in her voice. She had made her decision the moment the contract was complete.
"Kazu, don't doubt yourself. The people depend on you, and I'll always be right here."
The last few words of Akane's response caused the king to sigh in relief. He began mentally preparing himself for his first address to the arriving Windbloom court.