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Chapter 5 - The Overseer & The Report

The town was practically empty, and the first rays of dawn were only just beginning to pierce the dark sky above. Stepping out of the inn, Three inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the chilly air in an effort to dispel his drowsiness.

The town, known as Luzent, was located on the border of Calvard and Remiferia. Three and Nine would often undertake missions in both countries, making the centrally-located town a perfect base of operations.

East of the town was an official border crossing into Calvard. In stark contrast, westward lay a mountain road known only to a select few. It was a treacherous path to be sure, but also one that facilitated entry into the Republic without the need to go through the official channels.

Three headed to the designated rendezvous point--a small hill surrounded by weathered boulders. The site was deep in the mountains, and therefore free of unwanted eyes.

There, he found a black silhouette waiting for him. It was a man hidden in shadow, wrapped in a tattered black cloak that obscured his face and body both. Despite his bedraggled attire, his presence had an insurmountable weight to it, instilling a primal sort of fear into any who laid eyes on him.

'I'm here to make my report,' said Three.

In response, the cloaked figure uttered only a single word.

'Speak.'

This man, known as the Overseer, was one of the higher-ranking members of the Organization. He was given the name of 'Emperor' from the Major Arcana, but those who served under him referred to him simply as 'the Overseer.'

As his title suggested, he watched over Three and the rest of the Organization's tools. He was the one who provided mission instructions and received their reports.

Three relayed the details of the Halldor mission to the Overseer. As he finished, the man spoke again.

'Next.'

'Right. Regarding Nine of Swords...'

As part of their debriefing, every member was required to report on their partner's activities. Each of the pair would separately describe what they did and what they observed their partner doing. Even the slightest discrepancy between the pair's reports was regarded with suspicion. The objective behind this requirement was to instill them with fear--fear that any plot they may hatch to betray the Organization would swiftly make its way to the ears of their superiors.

'That is all,' Three said as he finished his report.

'Very well,' the Overseer said, 'You will be contacted with instructions for your next mission once they are ready.'

'Understood.'

Three turned to head back to town, but as he did, the Overseer spoke again. It was little more than a whisper, but it was delivered with a weight that froze Three in his tracks.

'Stop.'

Three slowly turned around to face the Overseer. As always, his dark hood completely covered his face.

'It's been three years now. You haven't been making any more plans, have you?'

Three felt a sudden chill shoot down his spine. The Overseer's suffocating gaze was laced with a powerful malice. There was no need for Three to ask for clarification. He knew the Overseer was talking about his escape attempt three years prior.

The Emperor had personally conducted many of the Organization's purges of runaway members. As their very lives became threatened, many lower-ranking members would find themselves overwhelmed by fear, rendering them powerless before the merciless Emperor. Thus, even within the Organization--a cruel place in its own right--the Emperor had earned himself a reputation for his savagery. He was also the very same man who had tracked down Three and Ace during their escape attempt.

Had he already picked up on Three's new plan to escape? No... Three found the thought absurd. He had taken every step with the utmost care and prudence. Further, if the Emperor had obtained some proof of Three's wrongdoing, the young assassin would already be dead. This was a test. If Three wavered here, even in the slightest, it would mean his end.

'I will never again attempt something so foolish. I am a tool of the Organization, nothing more. My sole purpose is to take the lives of my targets.'

The way he cast his eyes, his calculated and practiced manner of speech, his natural breathing patterns... Three had pulled it off to perfection. Silence hung heavy in the air between them for a moment. Finally, the Emperor spoke.

'I do hope that is the case.'

The murderous presence faded from the air, as did the tension that had been building in Three's chest.

'There are certain expectations riding on your shoulders,' the Emperor said.

'I will fully devote myself to meeting them,' Three said in the same practiced tone. He moved once more to return to town and was not stopped this time.

'He bought it...'

Back at his inn room, Three let out a sigh of relief as he collapsed into his bed. Nothing had really happened during his exchange with the Overseer, but nonetheless, he felt completely drained. Without exception, each interaction he had with the Overseer was psychologically exhausting. This was to be expected, however, as he was, indeed, hiding his true intentions from the Organization.

In truth, Three had been planning a second escape attempt. The past three years had been grueling, but did nothing to quash his fervent desire for freedom. If anything, his resolve to reclaim his humanity had only grown stronger by the day. However, each day also saw his blood-drenched hands growing yet heavier with sin. He was a mere tool--human in physical form only. What few shreds of humanity still remained in his heart, he feared would be forever lost before much longer. Each new day that dawned could be the day that he finally slipped away into being little more than a device--one whose only function was assassination. Put simply, a cold-hearted monster. That was the terrifying future he dreaded above all else.

'I absolutely need to succeed this time! I need to get out!'

His plan had two requirements he absolutely needed to meet in order to succeed.

First off, he needed to avoid a direct confrontation with the Overseer.

Second, Nine could not find out about his plan, regardless of their partnership. He had to be careful to avoid even giving the impression that he longed for freedom. Of course, this meant that Three would be forced to abandon Nine--someone who had fought at his side through countless life-or-death situations. The girl was even younger than he was, but for all her genius, there seemed to be something...off about her.

Nonetheless, whenever Three thought about the moment he would pull the trigger and finally put his plan in motion, he always felt a strange sensation welling up inside of him. Strangely enough, it was a desperate urge to fill her in. There were a number of times where Three had tried, actually. Before he could even get the first word out, however, memories of Ace's sword speeding down toward him would flash through his mind. In the end, he always remained silent.

'I... I can't take this anymore! I can't let my scars define me! I know what I have to do. There's no other way.'

Three shook off the thoughts plaguing him and returned his focus to preparing for his escape.

'The only person I can trust...is myself.'

The rest of the day went by quickly and before long, dusk began to settle on the town. The day saw Three's diligence pay off at last; his final preparations had gone as smoothly as he could have hoped for. The time had finally arrived. He would set his plan into motion that night. Once Nine fell asleep, he would leave town via the mountain road. Once in Calvard, he would be traveling by car, and he had already arranged for a rental to take him up north to a certain city. Once he arrived, he'd promptly set off for Liberl via one of the international airship routes that regularly departed from the city. He had yet to decide what to do after that point. He could stay a night or two in Liberl, or perhaps head over to Leman. In any case, he needed to get as far away from his current location as possible.

He may have been in the lowest rung of the Organization and had little idea what went on among its upper echelons, but he was determined to show them all that he was capable of casting off the shackles they had bound him with.

'Caaaw! Caaaw!'

His rising determination was interrupted by a crow flying into the room. It made a few circles in the air before landing on the table.

'What the--'

Taking a closer look at the bird, Three noticed a specific crest adorning one of its legs. As he did, his face twisted into a grimace. It could only mean one thing--this was the method the Overseer used to communicate.

'Now? He wants to meet now?'

It hadn't even yet been an entire day since Three had delivered his report.

'The briefing for the next mission, maybe?'

Even as he said the words, he was gripped by an indescribable sense of dread and anxiety. However much he wanted to simply ignore the summons, it was not a luxury he could afford. The only chance his plan had of succeeding was if he was able to put a good amount of distance between himself and his would-be pursuers before the Overseer realized what had happened. Were Three to ignore a direct order, however, the Organization would immediately recognize it as an act of rebellion...one that would inevitably lead to his death.

Mentally preparing himself for another encounter--one he could not avoid--Three set out for the meeting location.

The rendezvous point was the foot of a small hill deep within the mountains--the same site he had been just that morning, in fact. There remained no trace of the ominous, eerie stillness that pervaded the place before, however. Bathed by the light of the setting sun, the weathered boulders seemed wreathed in brilliant flames from a distance.

Three arrived to find two figures already waiting for him. The first was the Overseer, draped in the same tattered robe as usual. The thought occurred to Three that it made the man look more the part of the Hermit Arcana than it did the Emperor.

At the man's side stood a young girl carrying a large stuffed bear--Nine. Her attire was more or less the same as what she wore on the Halldor mission, with a few alterations to make it more functional and mobile. Her presence there did not cause any alarm for Three. After all, if they had been called to be briefed on their next mission, it was only natural she would be summoned as well.

Something felt...different, however. Three couldn't put his finger on why, but anxiety began gripping his chest.

'So you've arrived,' the Overseer said as Three approached.

'Yes. What is my task?'

The initial exchange was the same as it always was. What happened afterward, however, was decidedly not.

'Make your appeal.'

'My...appeal?' Three said slowly, the anxiety in his chest rising.

'I have received a report detailing your treachery from Nine of Swords.'

'I don't--' Three stammered.

He was at an utter loss for words. He had calculated each and every outcome that could potentially happen, going over the steps in his head time and again...and the absolute worst one possible was now playing out right before his eyes. A wave of despair washed over him. Could this really be happening again? Had Nine betrayed him, just like Ace? It wasn't possible, Three thought. He hadn't told her a thing. He knew that their relationship was strictly professional and he could not--under any circumstances--trust her. That was just how partnerships in the Organization worked. How could she have known? It didn't make any sense.

'There's been some kind of mistake!'

Three attempted to defend himself, knowing full well it was a futile endeavor.

'You can't talk yourself out of this, S... No, Three of Swords.'

Nine finally spoke, but her usual sleepy demeanor was nowhere to be found. Instead, her voice was crisp, her eyes alert. She removed a scrap of paper from within her bear and showed it to Three.

'This is your ticket for an airship voyage to Liberl. The one you booked for noon tomorrow.'

Three felt the ground fall out from under him. Amidst his shock, a small part of him wanted to yell out that the ticket was fake--that HE had the real ticket. But to do so would be tantamount to suicide.

Nine continued speaking, as though directly responding to Three's unspoken questions.

'The ticket you have in your possession is counterfeit. I swapped it for the genuine one while you weren't paying attention.'

Fresh from completing a mission that utilized this very same kind of forgery, Three now found himself the victim of the exact same trick.

'By the way, the name you used to acquire this ticket was Rhines Foghert, student of Jenis Royal Academy, correct?' Nine continued. 'That's the same name you used for your false ID on one of our missions last year. That would mean you've been planning this for quite some time, wouldn't it?'

Despite the immediate threat to his life, Three couldn't help but admire Nine's genius, strangely enough. Three decided he wouldn't even try to come up with an excuse. Nine had clearly seen right through his plan. She'd seen right into his mind, really. There was just one part he didn't understand. Even if it was her duty to sell him out like this... Even if she was a genius... He had been so cautious and prudent in every step of his plan, yet it had all been laid bare--seemingly without a trace of effort. How the hell had this happened?

'I take that expression to mean you're trying to puzzle out just how your entire plan was exposed,' Nine said, a slight smile playing at the corners of her lips.

It was clear to Three she was toying with him now. Mocking him.

'You do realize I've been watching you the whole time we've been partners, right? You've been my only target, right from day one.'

Her tone was merciless, her words dripping with thinly-veiled venom.

'Yes, I've been watching you, Three. Inspecting. Observing. The only real challenge was remaining patient as I waited for you to slip up and finally show your true colors. It's been that way since the moment I became your partner.'

Three struggled to wrap his mind around what Nine was saying.

'The fact is, you did attempt to betray the Organization. But even if you hadn't, I would have falsified whatever I needed in order to ensure your demise.'

She continued to speak, leaving nothing unsaid, despite the Overseer's presence. With each word, Three felt more and more baffled. He could understand her observing him to the degree that their job required, but where was this malicious hatred of hers coming from? She'd felt this way from the start? Why?

The Overseer, who had been silent for some time, let out a low, derisive laugh.

'I take it you still haven't figured it out? Who she is, I mean.'

Three could not, for the life of him, figure out what this was supposed to mean. He looked over at Nine, searching for some sort of clue. All he was met with, however, was a glare of pure hatred--one that made him shudder in fear. He had never seen her look that way before.

'Do you remember Ace of Swords? Your former partner?' she began, before her voice gained a measured, deadly weight to it, 'The one you murdered? He was my brother.'

Three's world began spinning. He started to feel violently ill. His senses dulled. His mind went blank. It became hard to breathe, as though he was being pulled to the bottom of the sea, the air crushed out of his lungs by its unrelenting pressure.

'Now, after all this time, I can finally avenge his murder.'

Three barely heard Nine's words as his head swam with thoughts. Ace was Nine's brother? She had known everything from the start? She had been biding her time, hiding her true intentions from the start. Always keeping a watchful eye for a suitable opportunity to arise. An opportunity to claim her vengeance.

Three stood there dumbfounded, as though he had lost the ability to speak entirely.

'I see no need for you to sputter through an excuse,' the Overseer said, reading the shock clearly written across Three's face, 'We have all the facts we need. You will be purged from the Organization. As per our rules, your partner, Nine of Swords, will now end your life.'

Hearing the Overseer's words, Nine stepped forward.

'If you wish for assistance in this task,' he said, turning to her, 'you will not be penalized. The reward will remain the same. The only condition is that you must be the one to deliver the final blow. Once you have eliminated him, your obligations will be cleared. Though I admit, the idea of losing such talent pains me.'

The reward. The right to one's freedom, gained by uncovering and then executing a partner who had betrayed the Organization. The yearning for this freedom had dominated Three's existence for years, and now Nine would be the one to gain it--in exchange for his life.

'Allow me the honor of doing it alone,' she responded, 'I will avenge my brother's death with my own hands.'

She took another step forward, producing a number of poisoned needles from inside her bear. Without a moment's hesitation, she launched them at Three.

He instinctively drew his sword and batted the needles out of the air. The combat tactics that had been drilled into him dictated he close the distance between them, yet he didn't take so much as a single step. His parry was purely reflexive, programmed into his mind through years of combat. He had no intention of truly fighting back. Perhaps it was partially because he didn't want to hurt her. More than anything, however, it was because he knew there was no point in resisting. Even if he did manage to best Nine, he would need to take on the Emperor afterward. And he knew that was a battle he had no chance of winning. Three simply accepted his fate was to die there and then, and there was nothing he could do to change it.

Nine pulled out roughly twice as many needles as before and again launched them at her former partner. In response, he automatically drew his shortsword and used both blades to swiftly deflect them.

In Three's mind, the thought slowly began to sink in--this was his retribution for killing Ace. Nine leapt at him, closing the distance, and began attacking with an even greater intensity.

Someone like me, Three thought, someone who slaughters a friend to preserve his own life, doesn't deserve freedom.

Someone like me doesn't even deserve to live.

Nine continued her assault, attacking with both her needles and her wires. Were this an ordinary situation, there was no chance she would be a match for Three in a close-quarters fight. However, his heart was not in the battle, causing a significant shift in the balance of power in the fight.

Eventually, Nine managed to decisively gain the upper hand, successfully looping her wire around Three's neck.

I'll die for her vengeance, he thought. Maybe that's the only outcome that makes sense. Maybe that's the end I deserve.

Nine deftly moved her fingers and the steel collar tightened around Three's neck.

'This is the end,' she said in a flat, frigid tone.

Three knew what would happen next. He closed his eyes, choosing to await his end in silence.

But the cold embrace of death did not come.


To be continued

第5巻 “管理人”と報告

まだ未明の空、町中を歩くひとはほとんどいない。
宿から出たスリーは冷たい空気を肺に吸い込み、(よど)んだ気持ちを何とか洗い流そうとする。

ここはレミフェリア公国の国境にある町ルーゼント。
公国と共和国で活動するスリーとナインにとってはなかば拠点のような場所である。

東に進めば共和国との国境門があり、西に進めばごく一部の人間しか知らない危険な山道があるが、門を通らずに共和国にはいる道もある。

報告のため、スリーはひとりで指定された場所へ向かう。

そこは風化した岩が並ぶ小さな丘だった。山奥にあるため、ひと気がまったくない。

そこで待っていたのはひとつの黒い影、いや、黒い装束の男だった。
全身を古びたローブで覆い隠しているため、顔どころか体つきさえ確認できない。異様としかいえない装いだが、それだけでは到底説明不可能な威圧感を周囲の空間に与えている。

「報告に参りました、“管理人”」

「聞こうか」

Three and Nine - Volume 5-1 (Hajimari).jpg

“管理人”と呼ばれているこの男は、スリーたちを管轄する“組織”の幹部のひとり。
大アルカナ《皇帝》(ザ・エンペラ―)の名を持っているが、“組織”の中ではむしろ“管理人”と呼ばれることが多い。

“管理人”の呼称のとおりに、彼はスリーたち下位戦闘員を管理している。任務を与え、報告を受け、“道具”を直接運用している存在である。

スリーは先日の客船での任務の詳細を“管理人”に報告する。
それが終わったあと──

「次は」

「はい、ソードの9(ナイン・オブ・ソーズ)の行動に関して」

パートナーの行動報告にはいる。

これも定期報告の一環で、パートナーを監視させ、そのあと別々に報告させる。自分の行動報告とパートナーによる監視報告に少しでも食い違いがあれば“組織”に疑われる。

こうして別々に報告させることで、知らないうちに自分の裏切り行為が“組織”に筒抜けになってしまうという恐怖を与えることも、その目的のひとつである。

「以上です」

「うむ、いいだろう。次の任務は追って指示する」

「はい、それでは」

スリーがその場から離れようとしたとき、突然背後からの低い声で呼び止められる。

「スリー」

振り返るが、相変わらず“管理人”の顔が窺えない。

「あれから3年、また同じことを考えていないだろうな」

瞬時、背筋に冷たいものが走る。窒息するほど濃密な殺気がスリーを襲う。

“あれ”が指すのはいうまでもなく、3年前スリーが行った逃亡未遂のことだ。

“管理人”エンペラーはよく自ら“粛清”(しゅくせい)を行う。その圧倒的な力の前に、裏切り者はただ無残に殺されることしかできない。そのため、彼は“組織”のなかでも恐怖の対象と見なされている。

3年前にスリーとエースを追い詰めたのもまさに彼だった。

その人物があのときと同じ殺気を放ち、スリーを問い詰めている。まさか自分の企みに気づいたのか?
いや、慎重にやってきたのだ。もし何か証拠を(つか)んでいたら、とうに自分は殺されている。
これは……試されているのだ。少しでも動揺すれば、そこで終わる!

「ご冗談を……あのような(おろ)かな行為は二度とあり得ません。所詮(しょせん)自分はひとを殺すことしか能がない、ただの“凶器”ですから」

自然な呼吸で、息を乱さず、計算し何度も訓練した口元の形や視線の角度……すべてを完璧に演じる。

しばしの沈黙のあと――“管理人”が口を開いた。

「ならばいい」

すると重苦しかった殺気が嘘のように霧散し、全身にのしかかった重圧も消えた。

「君には期待している」

「はい、ご期待にお応えできるよう精進します」

そして今度こそ、スリーはその場を離れた。

「何とか、なったか……はぁ…」

宿に戻ったスリーは息を吐き、ベッドに倒れ込む。
とくに何かしたわけではないが、極度の疲労を感じる。それほど“管理人”とのやり取りで精神を消耗したのだろう。

それもそのはず。なぜなら彼は自分の真意を隠しているからだ。

そう、スリーは再び逃走を計画している。

3年の歳月は彼から自由の意思を奪うことは出来なかった。むしろ日に日に増して、“人間”への憧れが(ふく)らむ一方だった。血に濡れた両手はどんどん重く、(みにく)くなっていく。自分は人間の形をした“道具”。しかしこのままでは、その形すら保てなくなり、ただひとを殺すための“装置”となり、“怪物”になるのだとスリーは思った。それはあまりにも恐ろしい未来だ。

――今度こそ逃げ切ってみせる!

そのための絶対条件は“管理人”との正面衝突を避けることとパートナーのナインに逃走の計画を隠し通すこと。
もちろんそれはナインをひとりにして、置いていくことを意味する。

何度も生死を共にしたパートナー。
自分よりも幼く、才能に(あふ)れていながらもどこか抜けているような女の子。

不思議と放っておけないような感情がスリーのなかに渦巻く。
何回かナインに打ち明けようとしたが、その度に巨剣を掲げ自分へ振り下ろそうとするエースの姿が脳裏を過ぎる。あんな思いは、もう二度とごめんだ!!

だから―――これでいい。

雑念を振り払い、スリーは逃走の準備に戻る。

「信じられるのは、自分だけだ」

………………夕方になり、陽がだいぶ傾いてきた頃。前々から準備していたおかげで、スリーの最後の支度はすんなりと終わった。

決行は今夜。

ナインが寝入ってから町を出て、山道のほうから国境を超える。
共和国にはいってからは導力車での移動になるが、事前に用意したレンタル車を使って北部の大都市に行く。そこから国際定期飛行船でリベールへ向かう。その後のことはまだ決めていない。しばらくリベールに留まるか、それともレマンあたりに向かうか、とにかく今いる場所から遠く離れたほうがいい。下っ端の自分では“組織”の全貌(ぜんぼう)なんて分からない、それでも必ず逃げ切って見せる!

カァ――、カァ――

そうスリーが勢い込んでいたところで、1匹のカラスが窓から侵入し、部屋のなかを旋回し始めた。

「これは……」

その脚にさげている独特な装飾を見て、スリーは顔をしかめる。

それが意味するところは――“管理人”からの召集。

「こんな時間に?」

まだ報告を終えて数時間しか経っていない。

「新しい任務の指示か?」

うまく言い表せない不安に()られるスリー。しかし無視するわけにもいかない。

計画通りなら、追手が動き出すまでにかなりの距離を稼ぐことができる。だがいますぐ逃げても、召集を拒否した時点で叛意(はんい)ありと判断され、すぐに追手が来て、呆気なく一巻の終わりとなってしまう。

意を決し、スリーは指定された場所へ向かう。

その場所は朝方と同じ、山奥の小丘。
朝の静寂な不気味さと打って変わって、夕陽に照らされた岩は遠くからだとまるで燃えているように見える。

そこではふたつの人影がスリーを待っていた。

ひとりは“管理人”。

前と同じく古びたローブを身に(まと)うその姿は《皇帝》(ザ・エンペラ―)よりむしろ《隠者》(ザ・ハーミット)と言ったほうが適切に思える。

もうひとりは、大きなぬいぐるみを抱えた幼い少女――ナインだ。

着ている服は先日のドレスと似たような意匠を感じられるが、装飾が少なめで、幾分(いくぶん)か動きやすそうに見える。

新たに任務を指示するなら、ナインがここにいても不自然ではない。
ただ、わずかに普段と違うその雰囲気が、スリーの不安をさらに加速させた。

「──来たか」

「はい、ご用件は何でしょうか?」

いつもと同じやり取り。しかし、それがすぐに違うものになる。

「弁明を、聞こうか」

「べん…めい?」

「君の裏切りはすでに告発された。そこのソードの9(ナイン・オブ・ソーズ)によってな」

「なっ!?」

言葉を失う。
予想しうるすべての事態のなかでも最悪な展開が、目の前で形となってしまった。

絶望が波のようにスリーに襲ってくる。またか、またあの時と同じか?

またオレは裏切られ……いや違う。ナインとは別に何の約束も交わしていない。

これが彼女の仕事で、オレもそれを承知したうえで彼女を信用しなかった。
パートナーとはそういうものだ。
ただそれだけの話さ。それだけの、話なんだ。

「これはきっと、何かの勘違いです!」

無駄だと知りながらも、スリーは何とか弁解しようとする。

「言い逃れは出来ないよ、すーちゃん。いいえ、スリー」

言葉を発するナイン。いつもの眠たげなテンションとは真逆の、冷徹な声をスリーに向ける。

ナインはぬいぐるみから1枚の紙きれを取り出し、スリーのほうへ掲げる。

「これは、あなたが予約したリベール王国行き、明日正午発の国際定期飛行船のチケットよ」

「!!?ッ」

衝撃とともに「チケットはオレが持っている!」と叫びたくなったが、当然そんなことをすれば自爆にしかならない。
スリーの疑問に答えるようにナインは言葉を続ける。

「あなたのところにあるチケットは偽造した贋物(ニセモノ)。私がすり替えたの」

先日の任務で使った手口を、まさか自分がやられるとは。

「ちなみにそのチケットを取るために使った名義は、1年前の任務で偽造に利用したジェニス王立学園の生徒、ラインズ・フォーゲルトだよね? そのときの書類をまだ持っているということは、かなり前から逃走計画を企てていたのかな?」

やはりナインは天才だ、と場違いな感想がスリーの脳裏に浮かぶ。

ここまで見破られていては、もはやどんな弁解をしたところで意味はないだろう。
それでも、スリーにはまだひとつだけ納得し難いところがある。

いくらこれが仕事でも、いくらナインが天才でも、自分もかなり慎重に行動してきたはずだ。
にもかかわらず、こうも簡単に見破られてしまった。何故だ?

「どうしてバレたんだろう、といった顔ね?」

小さく笑うナイン。その言葉のなかに(あざけ)りが含まれているのをスリーは感じた。

「ずっと、あなたのことを見ていたからよ? あなただけを、ずっと見つめていた」

もちろんそれは甘い言葉などではなく。

「見て、見つめて、観察して、監視して……あなたが馬脚を(あらわ)すときを、今か今かと待っていたわ。それこそ、あなたとパートナーになったその瞬間から、ずっとね」

ナインが何を言おうとしているのか、スリーには分からなくなってきた。

「そして、あなたはこうして実際に“組織”を裏切ったのだけど、もし本当にその気がなくても、そのうち私がでっち上げていたでしょうね」

“管理人”がこの場にいることも構わず、ナインはそう言い放った。

スリーはますます混乱する。仕事として自分を監視していたのならまだ理解できる。だが、これではまるで最初から自分に悪意を持っていたような……そこで、しばらく沈黙していた“管理人”が低く笑いだした。

「そうか、君はまだ知らないのだな、彼女のことを」

“彼女”がナインのことを指しているのは分かる。しかし“知らない”とは、何のことだ?

ナインのほうを見る。するとスリーはいままで一度も彼女から感じたことのない、憎しみをこもった視線に思わず戦慄(せんりつ)する。

「あなたが殺した元パートナー、ソードの1(エース・オブ・ソーズ)は、私の、実の兄よ」

Three and Nine - Volume 5-2 (Hajimari).jpg

一瞬、深い海の底に沈んだような錯覚に、スリーは捕らわれた。

朦朧(もうろう)とした意識は正常な思考を許さず、潰されそうな重圧のなかで息もできない。

「これでようやく、お兄ちゃんの復讐が叶う」

ナインが、エースの妹?

彼女は最初から3年前のことを知っていて、オレに目を光らせ、オレのそばで機を(うかが)っていた。

オレに――復讐するために。
まるで口が言葉を発する機能を持っていることを忘れたかのように、スリーはただ茫然(ぼうぜん)としている。

「もう答え合わせは十分だろう。次は粛清の時間だ。さあ、ナイン。ルールに従い、パートナーであり告発者である君が殺すのだ」

“管理人”の言葉を聞き、ナインは一歩前に出る。

「我が手を貸してもいい、褒美もそのままだ。ただ、トドメだけは自分で刺せ。そうすれば、晴れて君は自由の身となる。手放すには実に惜しい才能だがな」

“褒美”。

それは、裏切り者のパートナーを告発し殺すことで与えられる“自由”という名の権利。
今のナインはまさにスリーが欲してやまないその“自由”に、手が届こうとしている。

「いいえ、私ひとりにやらせてください。兄の(かたき)は、この手で()ちます」

「いいだろう」

また一歩、ナインは前に出る。

クマのぬいぐるみから毒針を取り出し、素早くスリーへ投擲(とうてき)する。

腰から剣を抜き、毒針を振り払うスリー。そこで一気に距離を詰めるべきだったが、彼は一歩も動かなかった。

そもそも防御したのも、体に染み込んだ戦いの勘がもたらした反射的な動作で、彼自身は意識していなかった。

戦う意思はない。それは相手がナインだからかもしれないが、それ以上に、戦っても意味がないからだ。

たとえナインを倒しても、その後ろにいる“管理人”――《皇帝》(ザ・エンペラ―)には決して勝てない。

自分がここで死ぬ運命はもはや覆らない……ナインは再び毒針を取り出し、先ほどの倍の数をスリーに向けて投擲する。

スリーは2本目の剣も取り出し、そのすべてをさばく。

――そうか、なるほどそうか、これが因果応報ってヤツか。

するとナインのほうがスリーに接近し、さらに攻撃を仕掛ける。

――経緯はどうあれ友を殺して生き延びたオレに、“自由”になる資格が、“人間”になる資格が、あるわけもないか。

針と糸を併用したナインの攻撃。

普段ならスリーが接近戦でナインに後れを取ることはないが、ほぼ無意識で応戦しているだけの状態であれば話が違う。

いつの間にかスリーの首に、鋼糸の輪が掛かっていた。

――だったら(かたき)としてオレが殺されるのも、当たり前か。ナインの指が動き、輪が収束する。

Three and Nine - Volume 5-3 (Hajimari).jpg

「これで、終わりよ」

もはやここまでだと理解し、スリーはただ、静かに死の瞬間を待つ――

しかし、そのときが訪れることはなかった。

TO BE CONTINUED

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