Chapter 2 - Three & Nine

At its scheduled time, the ship departed. As he watched the shoreline shrink into the distance, Three of Swords spoke in a cold, flat voice.

'Target presence confirmed. Have we pinpointed enemy positioning? Is our route prepared?'

'Yep. We're good to go.'

The young girl known as Nine of Swords stood behind the boy, answering in a relaxed drawl--the polar opposite of her partner's icy tone. Having been dispatched by the Organization, the two laid the groundwork for their mission: the assassination of the man responsible for this voyage--the wealthy merchant, Halldor Baarn.

The Organization was not particular about how they dealt with their targets--whether in swift silence or via raucous violence, their only real concern was making sure they did not draw the attention of the Bracer Guild or the local police.

As a hard rule, Three and Nine would always select the most efficient method available to them. In this case, their mission was to prevent the ship from arriving in Calvard with Halldor still alive on it. Halldor had strong ties with Heiyue, a sizable criminal organization in the Republic. Should he safely make it to his destination and take refuge under their protection, his extraction and subsequent elimination would prove an exceptionally difficult task.

Aside from the engine area, the ship had three main floors. The lowest housed a considerable number of general passengers. Naturally, this was where Three and Nine's room was located. The second floor contained a hall used for parties, banquets, and meals, as well as other such events. Finally, the third floor featured luxury rooms prepared specifically for noble use. At present, however, the entirety of the floor was reserved by Halldor, who was enjoying the comforts of the room in the furthest back.


Three and Nine put their equipment and tools in order and then sprang into action. Their plan was to head to the hall on the second floor, but not before leaving a little 'gift' on the first. The hall would be packed with passengers once dinner service began. Given that only the ultra-wealthy and those with noble status were in attendance, the menu was likely to be suitably extravagant, yet once they arrived, they found that Halldor had not elected to appear, perhaps out of caution. This was expected, however, and the two took their planned positions in a central area of the room.

'It's time.'

Three's quiet murmur was immediately followed by the din of an explosion from the floor below. The passengers began to panic, but their fear slowly subsided to uneasiness as security personnel deployed and headed to the first floor to investigate the situation. In truth, the explosion had been caused by a small makeshift bomb that Three and Nine had planted in an unoccupied room. The blast wasn't particularly powerful, but it was enough to ignite a number of small fires in the area. Their goal was to lure out security and in that regard, the bomb had more than served its purpose. The plan was progressing apace.

'Guess I'm up,' Nine said in her usual lackadaisical drawl.

She gathered up the edges of her skirt in her hands and gently swayed it back and forth, resulting in a number of black spheres thudding down to the floor. A series of muffled pops reverberated throughout the hall, heralding a cloud of smoke and tear gas that quickly filled the room.

'Wh-What's going on?! I can hardly breathe!'

'Aaah! My... My eyes are tearing up!'

The gas wasn't especially strong and would have no lasting effects on its victims. However, it was more than enough to send the already-uneasy group of elites into a full-blown panic. Three and Nine then began the next stage of their plan--their infiltration of the third floor.

Currently, the bulk of security was on the first floor, meaning they would have to pass all the way through the second in order to respond to any emergencies at the top of the ship. The large numbers of panicking passengers on the second floor wouldn't stall security for long, but the situation would still buy Three and Nine all the time they would need.

So far, the assassins' plan had gone flawlessly. Still, that didn't mean killing Halldor would be easy once they had reached him. The two hid themselves in a stairwell on the third floor and scouted ahead.

'Hmm... Two more there. From what I can see, it looks like we'll have five to deal with.' Nine shared her observations with Three in a hushed tone. He silently nodded in acknowledgement.

One look at the men standing guard ahead was enough to tell they were neither typical passengers, nor ship security. They were well-armed, and their combat experience was practically carved into their hardened faces.

'Ex-jaegers, huh?'

It was clear they had been hired not to protect the general guests, but to personally attend to Halldor. Given that his room was located in the very back of the ship, it meant that the only way to reach him was through the battle-hardened veterans that currently barred Three and Nine's path. Avoiding a fight simply wasn't in the cards this time.

'I'll take lead.'

As she said this, Nine began to casually walk forward, her posture relaxed. She made no attempt to hide her approach, and even when the guards heard her soft footsteps and turned to look, they didn't register her as a threat--an advantage afforded by her candy-sweet exterior.

'Little lady, you're not allowed up here without permission,' one of the guards said in a gravelly voice.

'Yeah. We know there's been some kind of disturbance downstairs,' another chimed in, 'but this ain't an evacuation site. Get yourself back to your room.'

Their tone was a bit harsh, but considering they used to be jaegers, their attitude toward Nine was almost amicable. She gestured toward Halldor's room.

'But I want to go in there. Pretty please?'

Nine wasn't putting on the spoiled noble act she had used to sneak aboard the ship earlier in the day. This was probably as close to her genuine, sleepy intonation as she would allow during a mission.

'You wanna meet with Mr. Halldor, do ya? Well, today ain't your lucky day, kid, cause we got strict orders to not let anyone into this room.'

'And there's nothing I can do to change your mind?'

Nine tilted her head as she spoke, her presence beginning to unnerve the guards.

'No, nothing,' one of them finally responded.

'Oh, I see... That really is too bad.'

Despite her words, Nine didn't seem especially disappointed by their response. Taking her plush bear in hand, she suddenly thrust it out in front of her. There was a flash of silver and a loud 'fwip,' followed by the thud of two of the guards collapsing to the ground. Their necks had each been pierced by two needles, which had been tipped in poison--a specialty of Nine's and her mainstay in combat.

Ordinarily hidden within the bear, the needles could be used to quickly disperse various types of poison through a target's body when thrown at a vital point. Nine would typically carry up to ten types of poisons, each suitable for a different situation. Depending on the circumstances, she would even use poison-free needles on occasion. This time, Nine had struck the two bodyguards with a neurotoxin that robbed the body of its ability to freely move. While not strong enough to kill, it was definitely enough to immobilize someone of substantial size for a good while.

'What the--?'

Having sensed something amiss, one of the remaining bodyguards down the hallway turned to see what was happening. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a figure quickly moving in his direction. Before he could figure out what was happening, however, a blade flashed before his eyes and he was on the ground, incapacitated along with his comrades.

The swift takedown was executed by Three. He wielded a longsword with a thin blade that appeared sharp enough to cut the very air around it. Its construction resembled that of traditional Eastern swords, albeit with a straight blade instead of the typical curved one. Its design was surprisingly ornate, and curiously enough, it seemed to be missing a hiltguard and part of the blade near its base.

The two remaining bodyguards had seen what had happened and had each already dropped into a fighting stance. No matter how youthful their opponents, it was clear they had no intention of pulling their punches.

'You little bastards!' yelled one of them as he began swinging his axe downward.

Three met the attack with his sword, locking the assassin and the bodyguard in place. Seeing an opening, the other bodyguard drew his sword and attempted to stab Three. While still holding the axe in place with his right hand, Three quickly drew a short sword with his left, using it to deflect the second bodyguard's attack in one clean motion.

The short sword resembled the longsword in nearly all aspects but length. Unlike the longsword, it had a hiltguard. However, it seemed incomplete somehow, as though it was missing a piece. It was much less of an offensive weapon than the longsword, being used mainly for defense.

Despite his best efforts to fend off the attackers, it seemed as though Three would quickly be overpowered. Even for him, it was difficult to hold back the weight of an attack from a grown man with only his right hand. Sensing that he needed to do something quickly, Three intentionally stopped pushing back on the axe, deflecting it harmlessly to the side. With his remaining strength, he whipped around to face his staggering assailant and plunged his short sword deep into his torso.

The other bodyguard quickly launched a flurry of attacks, but Three pushed the critically-wounded axe-wielder into his comrade. The sword-wielding bodyguard was momentarily taken off guard and Three capitalized on the opening, cutting him down with both swords.

'Right, that should be--'

Three turned to notify Nine that the guards had all been dispatched, but as he did, he saw the door to the VIP room open behind her. Out stepped another ex-jaeger, weapon drawn, his sights set on attacking the defenseless Nine while her guard was down.

Too much space separated them for Three to warn Nine in time. He pushed off his back heel with all his might, but stopped his dash a split second later--as did the final bodyguard.

'My, you're pretty sharp. I was wondering how long it'd take you to catch on.'

Nine turned lazily on her heel and cast a derisive glance over her shoulder. Her expression remained unfazed as thin, red stripes appeared over the jaeger's arms and legs, blood beginning to trickle out like sanguine tears.

'You'd do well to keep still. Wriggle too much, and you'll be leaving in far more pieces than you arrived.'

Her sweet appearance made her remarks all the more disconcerting and ghastly. The ex-jaeger understood that this was no empty threat. He truly couldn't afford to take another step. The cause of his painful predicament was a web of superfine steel wires surrounding him. Thanks to their special processing, the wires were roughly as sharp as a drawer full of top-end kitchen knives.

Nine had laid a trap outside the door--one that an unassuming person would have been hard-pressed to detect with the naked eye. Any unfortunate soul who had tried to pass through the area with any degree of speed would have soon found themself the centerpiece of a grisly, blood-splattered tableau.

The wires were connected to specially-designed needles Nine used as her main weapon. Such wire was notoriously difficult to use, and was rarely regarded as being sufficiently powerful to use as one's only means of attack. While there were rumors of true masters who needed no other implements to eliminate their target, Nine had yet to attain quite such a level of skill with them. That said, she was still a menace in her own right, and a fiendishly clever master of traps besides, as the ex-jaeger had just learned.

Nine tossed a poisoned needle at her immobilized foe with minimal effort and her hapless victim collapsed to the floor.

She tilted her head to the side as she noticed Three staring at her.

'What? Is something wrong, S?' she asked, using the nickname she preferred to call Three by. She would often refer to herself as 'N,' which Three took as a shortened version of 'Nine,' but when she spoke with Three, she would use 'S' instead of 'T'. He had assumed it to be short for 'Swords,' despite the word being part of both their names, but had never bothered to ask.

'Nothing. Nothing at all,' Three tersely responded as he turned to face the VIP room door.

At last, the pair stepped into the room housing their target, Halldor Baarn.


To be continued

第2巻 スリーとナイン

予定されていた時刻になり、船は出航する。

どんどん離れていく岸のほうを見つめ、無機質な声で《ソードの3》(スリー・オブ・ソーズ)――スリーはいう。

「ターゲットの乗船を確認した。敵の配置とルートは?」

「ばっちり~」

スリーとは正反対のような間延びした声で、後ろに立つパートナーの少女《ソードの9》(ナイン・オブ・ソーズ)――ナインは答える。

“組織”から派遣された二人の今回の任務はこの船旅の主催者――豪商ハルドル・バールンの暗殺である。

“暗殺”といっても、人知れず殺すのも、警察や遊撃士協会(ブレイサーギルド)に目を付けられない程度に暴れるのも、どちらでも構わない。効率がいいほうを優先するのがルールだ。ただ、このまま船が進み、ハルドルがカルバード共和国に着くことだけは避けたい。彼と強い(つな)がりを持つ共和国の犯罪組織《黒月(ヘイユエ)》に保護されてしまうと、手出しが難しくなる。

機関部などを除き、この船の区画はおもに3つのフロアに分けられる。いちばん下の階は客室で埋まっている。当然スリーたちの部屋もここにある。2階はホールになっていて、夕食会やパーティーなどがここで催される。そして3階にはいくつかの貴賓室(きひんしつ)があるが、現在はハルドルの貸し切り状態だ。彼はそのいちばん奥を陣取っている。

装備を整え、二人は行動に移る。まずは2階のホールに移動するが、そのまえに置き土産も忘れずに。ちょうど夕食の時間になり、2階は客で(あふ)れかえっている。お金持ちや貴族ばかりで、メニューもそれ相応に豪奢なものだ。だがさすがに警戒しているのか、ハルドルはホールに来ていない。

「そろそろ時間か」

スリーが小声で(つぶや)くと同時に、下の階から小さな爆発音が響いた。客たちのあいだに動揺がはしったが、それもすぐに収まった。警備員たちがぞろぞろと1階へと向かっていく。先ほどの爆発はスリーたちが無人の客室に設置した小型爆弾によるもの。威力は大してないが、周りに設置した着火剤とあわせて、小さな火災程度は起こせる。警備員たちを釣る(エサ)としては十分だ。そして――

「こっちもやるよ~」

相変わらず緊張感のない声で、ナインは小さく相棒に宣言する。彼女はドレスのスカート部分をちょこっと摘まみあげ、ふらふらと左右に揺らす。するといくつかの黒い球のような物体が床に落ちる。「ポンッ!」というくぐもった音が響き、ホール中に煙が溢れる。

「な、なにこれ!! コホッコホッ」

「目が……涙が……」

煙幕と催涙ガス。殺傷力はなく、効果も比較的軽いものだが、これで2階のホール全体がパニックになる。

これからスリーとナインは3階で行動を起こす。1階にいる警備員たちが3階に上がるには必然的に2階を通ることになる。その2階がパニック状態になっているなら、かなりの時間を稼げるはずだ。今のところ作戦は順調。とはいえこれで簡単にハルドルを殺せるというわけではない。3階に差し掛かった階段のところでスリーとナインは身を潜め状況を観察する。

「3、4……廊下に5人、かな?」

つぶやくナインにスリーもうなずく。服装からして船員でもなければ招待客でもない。武器を所持しているし、その顔つきは戦闘慣れした人間のものだ。

「猟兵崩れ、か…」

船に務める警備員ではなく、ハルドルが個人で雇った護衛とみて間違いないだろう。ハルドルがいる奥の部屋までは一本道の廊下しかなく、戦闘は避けられない。

「じゃあ、なーちゃんから行くねぇ~」

そう言って、ナインはゆっくりと歩き出す。隠れるつもりも突撃して奇襲をかけるつもりもないようだ。小さな足音に気づき、護衛たちは近づいてくるナインを見る。可愛らしい外見のせいか、それとも敵意すら感じられないせいか、そもそも敵として認識していない。

「お嬢ちゃん、この階は立ち入り禁止だぜ」

「ああ、そういえば下がなにやら騒がしいようだなぁ、だがここは避難所じゃない、はやく帰れ」

口調はやや荒いが、護衛中の猟兵崩れにしては、かなり友好的な態度といえる。

「あの部屋に行きたいの、ダメ?」

言いながら、ナインは奥にあるハルドルの部屋を指さす。昼間の乗船口のときのようなわがままお嬢様演技ではなく、おそらく素の、眠たげでゆったりとした声だった。

「ハルドルの旦那に会いたいってか? 残念ながら今、旦那は誰とも会うつもりはないとのお達しだ」

「どうしても、ダメ?」

首をかしげるナインの仕草に、思わず護衛ふたりの頬がゆるむ。

「ああ、ダメだなぁ」

「そう……残念」

とくに残念がる様子もなく、ナインは抱えているぬいぐるみに左手を添え、そして素早く手を前方へと振り払う。

一瞬、小さな銀色の閃光が走り、一拍置いて、ふたりの護衛がパタンっと倒れる。

見れば、ふたりの首筋にはそれぞれ2本、合計4本の針が刺さっている。

それはナインが武器として(もち)いる毒針である。普段はぬいぐるみの中に隠しているそれを投擲(とうてき)し、経絡(けいらく)の特定の位置に命中させることで、毒が素早く全身を巡り効果を発揮する。状況に応じて数十種類の毒を使い分けるが、毒ではない場合もある。

護衛のふたりに刺さったのは体の自由を奪う神経毒で、死ぬことはないがしばらくは動けないだろう。

Three and Nine - Volume 2-1 (Hajimari).jpg

「うん?」

異常に気づき、何事かと振り返ろうとする奥にいる護衛のひとりが、視界の端で急接近する黒い影を(とら)えた。

それを正確に認識するより先に、白い剣閃がひらめき、3人目の護衛が地に倒れ伏す。

その早業(はやわざ)を成し遂げたのはスリーだった。手にするのは一振りの長剣。刀身が細く、尖端の構造が東方伝来の“刀”(かたな)を彷彿とさせるが、刀身に()りがない。(つば)もまるで一部が欠けているような複雑な構造をしている。

さすがに残ったふたりの護衛はすでに戦闘態勢を整えている。

「貴様ああああ!!」


男は斧を頭上にかかげ斬り付ける。スリーは長剣で受け止め、そのまま鍔迫り合いになる。これを好機と見たか、もうひとりの男は剣を抜きスリーに斬りかかる。スリーは右手をそのままに、左手で腰に差しているもう一本の剣を抜き、相手の攻撃を受け流した。

二本目の剣からは右手の長剣と似た意匠を感じられるが、鍔がなく、さらに幾分か短い。戦闘用ではなく護身用の短剣、といわれても違和感はないだろう。

体格差に加え、右手だけで支えているせいで、斧の男に押し負けそうになるスリー。そこで彼はわざと体と剣をそらし力を逃す。残る勢いで男の体が前へと傾き、それに合わせて左手の短剣が深々と男の体に刺さった。剣の男が再び斬り付けようとしたところ、スリーは深手を負った斧の男を彼のほうに押し付ける。それに一瞬気を取られ、スリーの二本の剣が最後のひとりの護衛を斬り伏した。

Three and Nine - Volume 2-2 (Hajimari).jpg

「さあ、これで――」

“全部倒した”とナインのほうへ振り返ろうとしたまさにその時、ナインの後方にある客室のドアが内側から開け放たれるのが見えた。

武器を構えながら廊下へ飛び出そうとする猟兵崩れ。その狙いは間違いなく背中が無防備なナイン――

警告を発するのも間に合わない距離にいるスリーは一瞬駆けつけようとしたが、次の瞬間、彼の動きが止まった。

――それは、客室から出ようとした敵も同じだった。

「あら~、勘がいいのね」

まるでそうなると事前に知っていたかのように、ナインはゆっくりと振り返る。猟兵崩れが部屋から出しかけた手と足にはいくつかの赤い横筋が浮かんでいて、そこから血が(したた)り落ちている。

「動かないほうがいいよ~下手に動いたら、肉片がたくさん出ちゃうかも」

幼い少女の容貌や表情とはひどく不釣り合いなセリフ。それは単なる脅しではないことを猟兵崩れは知っている。だからそれ以上前へは踏み出せない。極細の鋼糸(こうし)。特殊な加工が施され、ピンッと張った状態では刃物に匹敵する切れ味を持つ。そんなものが客室のドアの外に何本も張られていた。視認が難しいこともあり、もし気づかずに勢いで飛び出していたら、いまごろ血の雨が降りそそぐ惨状になっていただろう。糸の先端は特殊な形の針に繋がっている。無論これもナインの武器のひとつである。噂では扱いが難しいこの鋼糸だけで敵を蹂躙(じゅうりん)できる達人もいるようだが、残念ながらナインはまだその域に達していない。しかしこのように針とのコンビネーションで罠を張ったり色々と活用するぶんには、かなりの脅威になるのは間違いない。

すでに決着がついた勝負の後始末をするかのようにナインは針を投擲し、猟兵崩れがパタンっと倒れた。

このときになってようやく自分のほうを見つめているスリーに気づいたのか、ナインは小さく首をかしげる。

「うん? どうしたの、すーちゃん?」

「いや、なんでもない」

素っ気なく返し、反転する。

そして今度こそ二人はいちばん奥の部屋、ターゲット――ハルドル・バールンがいる場所へ足を踏み入れる。

TO BE CONTINUED


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