Prose Magica: The Ballad of the Seventeenth Part 20
"What - exactly - is the Ymir Protocol?"
Odette asked the question clear and blunt, locking eye with the incubator. For the first time in many years, she saw Fubey's eyes go wide with... something she couldn't quite place. Surprise? Shock? Fear, even?
"I'm afraid that is classified informa-"
At the sound of rustling paper, Fubey stopped. From her pocket, Odette pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, flattened it, then placed it on the incubator's desk. It was a standard termination order, neatly filled out in the incubator's own hand and stamped with the seal of the Seventeenth Officio. The order had been given to a one Fennel Vance, its target being none other than Odette Brighton. The only cause given was 'Protocol 81 - Ymir'.
"Fubey, I've been contracted for seven years now, don't pull that shit on me," the Eversor growled, her finger tapping the form. "I'm giving you a chance to explain yourself before we have another incident on our hands. What is the Ymir Protocol?"
The incubator refrained from answering her directly - instead he let out a short, exasperated sigh and pointed to one of the two sofa chairs in front of his desk. "Please have a seat," he directed her, before opening a desk drawer with his moustache-hand. "Would you care for a drink?"
"I- What? No," Odette shook her head in confusion after taking her seat. "Listen-"
"Are you sure?" The incubator asked, brandishing a bottle of Harrison's whiskey and a pair of tumblers. "It's quite good."
Fubey shrugged - or as close as he could get to a shrug with his tiny, chubby shoulders - as he poured himself a glass. "Suit yourself."
Odette stared, stunned by the sight of her employer indulging himself. She had never seen him drink, but at the same time, she had to admit it wasn't entirely unexpected. Fubey had always been the type to fall into depressed slumps rather easily.
"Didn't know you drank," she remarked.
"I believe we've known each other long enough to stop keeping secrets," the chubby cat said, before taking his first sip. He let out a heavy breath, then asked again, "You're quite sure that you don't want any?"
Odette swore she heard a muted "Hrmph" come from the incubator as he set the glass down. "Where to begin," he murmured, trying desperately not to make eye contact with his charge. "The Ymir Protocol, to put it simply, is a contingency plan. Should your mental state, ah, deteriorate to the point where witch transformation is imminent, well, ah..."
"You kill me," Odette filled in the blank.
Fubey nodded silently -almost sheepishly- as he took another sip. "To put it bluntly, yes. In its current state, we-... I believed that our Officio would suffer immense losses in the case that you, as they say, 'Witch Out'. The loss of life would far outweigh any potential gain."
"So you retire me," she said, choosing her words a bit more carefully, "before I reach that point."
Odette's composure slipped for a moment, lacing her next words with venom. "But I never did, did I?"
"I- No. No you did not," the Fubey answered. He couldn't bring himself to look anywhere but into his drink. "The order was rash and I wish with every fibre of my being that I could erase my moment of thoughtlessness. The day after Miss Vance was given the assignment, I tried contacting her to repeal the order. However, by that time she had vanished. Now that we know you were her primary target... I suppose I gave her exactly what she wanted."
Odette wanted to say something. She wanted to tell him how much of a load of bullshit that was, how she would quit the Officio forever, and yet... She knew he had a point. The Seventeenth wasn't exactly the toughest on the block, and she knew it. It was exactly the kind of decision she had been trained to make. She didn't want to admit it, but she knew she would have done the same thing in Fubey's position.
The silver-haired girl closed her eye and pressed her palm against her face as an exasperated sigh escaped her lips. "You fucking idiot..."
"Yes, thank you," the incubator muttered. "I apologize and am prepared to take whatever measures necessary to make amends, if possible."
"I- Fubey, listen-" Odette stammered, trying to sort out her emotions and speak at the same time. Slowly, she stood and reached out, clenching her fist, then relaxing it, as if about to retract it at any moment. Finally, she let out a long breath and held her hand out-stretched. "Call us even?"
Fubey looked at the hand, then back up at Odette. "Two years of poor Warmastering against one assassination attempt?" He asked, a hint of amusement colouring his words. With one of his moustache-appendages, he took Odette's hand and shook it lightly. "One of us is getting a bargain, but I can not for the life of me tell whom..."
Odette smirked and sunk back into her seat. "I'll take that drink now," she said. "But just one. I, uh, I'm going out with Lotte in a few hours."
Fubey laughed softly to himself and did as she asked, handing her a glass. "I must say, I am rather surprised. Pleased," he said, "but surprised. I did not expect you to take this so well."
"Turns out spending nine days hanging from a tree gives you a lot of time to think," the Eversor replied. "The last thing we need around here is more bullshit from either of us. I was serious when I said I wanted to make things right this time. No more grudges. No more secrets."
"I dare say, that almost sounds too good to be true," Fubey mused. "But if that is the case, there is one more thing I wished to speak to you about. A proposition."
"Shoot," Odette said, before taking a noisy sip of the whiskey. It burned her throat, forcing her to let out a wet hack. "Nope, still can't stand it..."
"Should the Warmaster decline your offer to become her Equerry or if you were to rethink it, I would ask you to consider becoming my personal aide," he said, bowing his head slightly - a gesture that only served to show off his multiple chins in place of a neck. "I would be honoured to have someone of your skill acting as my hand."
'I thought Holly and Molly were your aides."
"To a degree, yes," the incubator replied, taking another sip. "But I could certainly use someone who could act directly when necessary. There are a number of matters that could already use your attention."
Odette let out a long breath, leaning her head back against the chair as she thought. Though, as she did, she couldn't help but realize that there wasn't much to think about. Being Equerry could only let her do so much, but to be the incubator's personal aide? Odette had heard the position referred to as a 'Hatless Warmaster' before, and she couldn't exactly disagree with the term.
"I'll think about it," Odette finally answered. "After my vacation, of course. I mean, assuming the offer will still be open when I get back."
The former Warmaster couldn't help but smile and quietly giggle to herself . "I guess that's that then," she said, bringing her glass to her lips again and drank... then promptly spat it all back into the glass. "Nope. Can't do it."
"Joe baby, trust me. I know what I'm doing here."
The green-haired woman spoke into the phone with a tone just on the edge of frantic. She leaned back in her recliner, twirling her black sunhat around her finger again and again. She was called Prime; the first, the original, the leader of a leaderless organization.
"-no, sorry, bad choice of words," she said, giggling slightly. She spoke her words at rapid-fire speed with a light Southern accent, never stammering or tripping over herself. "I know you don't trust me, Joe. I don't trust you either! That's why we have a good business relationship! Mutual mistrust makes the world go round, sweetie. But, listen, hun, this ain't my first rodeo, alright? You gotta understand-"
The apartment around her was a cluttered, disorganized mess. Another green-haired girl wearing hot pants and stockings with a black waistcoat over a striped dress shirt sat on a sofa to one side of the Prime, anxiously shuffling and reshuffling a deck of cards. Curiously, a pair of short black devil horns jutted out from beneath her hair, like a pair of tiny mountains emerging from a forest canopy. The name given to her was Mathilda Herzog, but everyone had come to call her simply Tilly.
"Fine, finefinefine, we'll speed things up," said Prime after being interrupted. "You want two weeks, I'll give you two weeks, but I'm tellin' you right now, it's gon' be messy. Someone traces things back to you... or - heaven forbid - the little princess... Well, that ain't gonna be my fault, now. We understand each other, hon?"
To Tilly's left sat a third, taller girl, fiddling with her phone in one hand and dropping a slice of pizza into her mouth with the other. She looked nearly identical to Prime, save for a fedora and necktie in place of Prime's sunhat and ribbon.
A rustling and hissing exuded from her bosom before a small, scaly head slipped out from between her shirt buttons. The snake darted out, snatched a dangling piece of pepperoni, then disappeared beneath her top again. The snake charmer's current name was Ingrid Pech, an arbitrary designation given for convenience, same as the rest. The Black Mamba hiding in her cleavage, on the other hand, was called Lenny, and that was its true name because snakes have no use for pseudonyms.
"Thing's gonna get fat," Tilly muttered, leering at the girl beside her.
Ingrid grinned and shook her head at the girl, hissing playfully.
"Well it ain't gonna go as well as the last time, but we barely had to do anything there," Prime continued, shooting a glare at the two girls to her right. "I mean, we already lost one of our big girls inside, and the one left is dumb as a bag o' rocks. Dedicated, sure. Passionate, even! But stupid, so she's only gonna get us so far. Not everyone can play the game like Elly... Yeah. I understand. So how's the princess doin', anyways?"
Across the coffee table from Tilly and Ingrid, a fourth girl sat cross-legged directly in front of the enormous television, her eyes blood-shot and transfixed to the screen as she flipped through a channel every second.
Unlike the others, she wore a traditional two-piece business suit with a checkered tie and thick-rimmed glasses. Her unkempt hair was a darker shade of green than the other three, decorated with a pair of pink streaks framing her face.
If one paid close enough attention to the rapidly changing channels, they would notice that a fair number looked suspiciously like security camera feeds and private communications. Her name was Shion Ranko, the house communications and information expert.
"Aw, that's adorable!" Prime laughed. "Call me if that little slut wants to start taking her job a little more seriously, m'kay? Tell her I said hi! Alright, gotta go, sweetie! Talk to you later! Buh-bye~"
Prime let out a long, heavy groan as she hung up the phone and squeezed the bridge of her nose. By the time her hand dropped from her face, Prime's good humour returned and she began to address the other girls in the room.
"Alright, ladies, you all heard! As of now, we're officially in crunch mode, so put on your big girl pants, and- Oh for god's sake," she said, gesturing toward Shion, "one of you wake her up."
With two fingers, Tilly picked a card out of her deck and threw it with a practised hand. The card spun through the air before a corner lodged itself firmly in the back of the spellbound girl's head. For the first time in hours, Shion blinked, then slowly turned to face the other girls with bleary, distant eyes.
"Hrm?" She groaned, still half in a trance. A beat passed, then, "OW, FFFUCK!" She screeched, yanking the lightly bloodied card out of her scalp. "UNNECESSARY."
"But funny," Ingrid remarked, snickering.
Tilly, on the other hand, opted to remain silent, instead giggling with an impossibly smug grin plastered to her face while Shion fumed.
"Ladies, please," Prime said with a hollow, chilling smile on her face, "can we just - for a moment - please focus?" The three girls promptly settled down at the sight of their senior's expression. Ingrid gave a slight nod and Prime continued, "Thank you. Ladies, we have been planning this job for months. We have two weeks ahead of us that will make or break this entire operation. Everything's already in place, all we need now is a spark to set off the fireworks. I would have liked a little build-up - bit of 'dramatic escalation' if you will - but old Joe's gettin' cold feet and wants the show to start before the new Warmaster's official inauguration. From this point on, there will be no screw ups, no procrastination, and absolutely no FUCKING AROUND on the job. Each of you has a reason for being here, and I have a reason for KEEPING each of you here. If I stop having a reason to keep you, then I start having a reason to put you out of service. Am I clear?"
The three girls in front of her each nodded in unison.
"Good," Prime said, before she began to bark out orders of each of the other magical girls, pointing to them as she did. "Ingrid, we already talked about your next job. I want that done tomorrow. Understand?"
"Consider it done~"
"Mathilda, I need you to make the plant as soon as you possibly can. I want the Warmaster in our pocket before the week is done."
"Shion, contact Vance and give her a status update, then sit tight and keep monitoring things until further orders."
Shion adjusted her glasses and nodded without a word.
"And me?" Asked a fifth voice from behind Prime's chair. Another girl, at least as tall as Prime and Ingrid stepped forward from the corner of the room, placing her hand on Prime's shoulder. Her face was unnaturally shadowed beneath the hood of long, bright orange, short-sleeved coat - Surrey Reid, the closest any of them came to Prime's second-in-command. None of the others - save for Prime herself - seemed to notice that the fifth girl had been in the room the entire time. The gambler's poker face momentarily slipped into shocked surprise, the snake-charmer smirked and laughed to herself, and the technician glanced at the others, trying to make sure that she wasn't the only one caught off-guard.
"You, my dear," the senior said, patting the newcomer's hand, "have the dubious honour of keeping this ship afloat while I step away for a few days to meet with some of our friends."
Prime murmured a quiet affirmative, then said, "Can't exactly pull this off in two weeks without her help."
"Well then," Surrey said, looking up at the others, "let's kill us an Officio. Hydra dominatus."
In perfect synchronization, each of them clasped a fist to their chest and echoed her in perfect, unearthly harmony.