The sounds of the carriage wheels gliding over the streets of the grand Estmarch capital kept Miku Hatsune’s mind focused during her ride through the September moonlight. Her pure white gown, ruffled around the sleeves and matching the white ribbons of tying her hair into two long teal pigtails, made her appear as innocent as newly fallen snow. A small tiara of flowers nestled in her hair, perpetuating what she knew to be an illusion.
Her “innocence” was a lie.
She glanced out the windows as she tried to make a mental image of Vedunia as it was tonight. She’d already ridden in through the slums, where poverty and strife claimed those deemed “lesser.”
Now she rode through the wealthy districts where those close to the seat of power flaunted their money and privilege. Clean and neat, shining with gilded trims and finely paved streets. New automobiles sat next to many of the curbs - a symbol of status as the industrial age continued to enrich the wealthy and drain the poor. Miku’s carriage was merely for show.
“Tonight you are a Cinderella, and when the clock strikes twelve, you will become a princess.”
Cinderella’s fairy godmother never turned mice into steel and gasoline.
Cinderella never planned to murder her Prince.
The carriage came to a stop as the first security checkpoint was reached. Miku’s face eased into a happy smile as a soldier in a deep blue uniform approached her door. “Miss, I must have your name and your papers.”
She pulled out the documents she needed – all of them forged, a fake title, a fake country.
“I’m the Countess Miku Hatsune of Marchenland.”
She could hear them mumbling to each other as they looked over each one. “Travel papers issued… August 31st, 1914. These are the most recent ones, right?”
“Indeed… here’s a copy, see? They haven’t changed them in three weeks yet, must be a record.”
Having sorted it out, the guards allowed her carriage to progress.
As if waving a magic wand, Miku had been turned from the child of the cinders into a Countess.
To Miku’s surprise, the closer she got to the palace, the more her hands trembled. She didn’t understand – was this not what she’d been born to do? Was this task not the price she was to pay to become Cinderella?
She tried to imagine her target. She’d never met him of course – it was important that his murderer be a complete stranger. The son of two monstrous tyrants, little was truly known about Prince Kaito of Estmarch. While everyone knew his face thanks to the proliferation of royal portraits and propaganda for the Crown, he was yet to be regent and he played no role in the brutal politics. Those who had lost hope of mercy from his parents had started to whisper hopes that perhaps this mysterious prince would be different, that he would turn his back on the wars of conquest. Others held no such illusions – a child of tyrants would no doubt grow up to be a tyrant himself, and fear of the terrible reign of the Shion royals extending into another generation drove the violent rebellions sparking up across the country.
Miku wondered if she should try to think of him that way, until she remembered her training – there was to be no emotional attachment whatsoever. No matter what sort of man Prince Kaito turned out to be, his fate was to be the same.
She rode into the second security checkpoint and again gave her practiced introduction. Again, she waved through. The child of a merchant, abandoned after his death to the whims of a stepmother and stepsiblings. Miku was the embodiment of Cinderella’s humble upbringing.
She watched a few black, clattering cars get waved into the castle grounds and she knew she was close to the final checkpoint – and the palace gates. She tried to steady herself, carefully adjusting the knife strapped to her upper right thigh underneath her skirt. Her other thigh had just one other item, intended to help herself should her ability to escape become compromised.
She’d not yet killed a man – but she knew how. She knew where every organ sat in the chest, where she would need to strike to do the greatest damage and ensure a swift, lethal wound. The prince’s death was to be painful, brutal – but quiet. A pistol would make too much noise, drawing attention before she had time to flee. A knife through his back into his heart could ensure his quick, quiet death.
He would bleed out in her arms… she would rest the corpse amongst the roses… then she would cry out to ensure his body was discovered… and then she would disappear into the night…
Her carriage stopped for the final time. Miku gathered her courage and presented a placid smile as she was announced. “The Countess Miku Hatsune of Marchenland!”
Her glass slippers tapped against the marble floor as she descended from her carriage.
“I'm called commonplace, an ordinary me. Predictable as, say, an old concerto piece. Keeping time though I'd much rather play it syncopated and guaranteed to give you harmony.”
Miku’s guide led her across the ballroom. A member of the conspiracy, but not one of her keepers. She had yet to meet him until tonight, but knew him by the glass pin on his shirt and his white mask. A tall older man with bright red hair and a goatee, wearing a luxurious greyish-purple suit with puffy pants and gold trim. Tonio something. He walked as if he felt everyone should treat him with respect. But he wasn’t important. All that mattered was that he would ensure she would easily meet her target.
“But as long as you testify your love with fingers on the keys, so fast that it blurs my sight, then softly whispered words breezing in my ear become a song… A serenade to keep myself in check…”
Miku’s eyes were drawn to the performer on the stage. A brunette woman with a lovely bob haircut pinned back by a red rose, her glamorous sleeveless red gown trailed behind her as she held the microphone between silky black gloves. Of course Miku knew her name – Meiko Sakine, the rising star of Nordland. The song was familiar to Miku – she’d heard it on the radio enough times to recognize it being performed live. Yet to see such a famous celebrity in the ballroom spoke of the prestige of Estmarch’s ruling house to attract her presence.
To perform for such notorious tyrants, rulers who no doubt had their greedy eyes on snatching her homeland for themselves in their next great conquest… was it a matter of pragmatism or sheer greed?
She watched a green-haired girl with a large camera snap a photo, a burst of light emitting from the bulb. So there was press here…
“She’s the only photographer,” Tonio whispered quietly, “She arrived with Miss Sakine. She is only permitted her camera for a few photos of the performance, and some publicity photos of her appearing with the royal family.”
Thus Miku could safely assume the Prince was not going to be chased around by a glory-seeking photographer.
More importantly, nobody would be taking her photograph.
Not that it mattered.
Many of the nobles were wearing white masks like Tonio’s, their smiles feeling so insincere with their false smiles. Miku knew not who her Godmother would be – someone to make sure her task was complete. Maybe even the person who twisted fate into this deadly result.
And finally, she caught sight of the man fate decreed would die at the stroke of midnight.
He was standing near the stage, surrounded by other nobles in masks but he himself was without one, allowing Miku to see his face. His pure white suit and gloves reflected the gold trims along his sleeves, little bits of gold fringe, and deep blue cuffs at the ends of his long sleeves. His deep blue ascot matched his short blue hair and his sapphire eyes, which remained wide and transfixed upon the singer. His face wore a broad smile as he watched the show in front of him.
“As our voices mingle, fusing with the night, echoing and dissipating… It'll be alright, even with acoustics in the walls. Enjoy it, babe, we're doing nothing wrong…”
As the song came to an end, the prince applauded much louder than the people around him. Meiko looked down at him and blew him a kiss. The young man blushed red and laughed nervously, but none of the nobles around him seemed to acknowledge it. Were they afraid to?
Tonio lightly tapped Miku’s hand and led her through the small crowd as Meiko left the stage. “Prince Kaito, I’d like to introduce you to the Countess Miku Hatsune of Marchenland. I promise she’ll make a most interesting companion for you tonight!”
And then those blue eyes met Miku’s for the first time, his bright smile as light as a sunny day. “Oh, hello miss. Duke Tonio spoke so highly of you! I certainly hope I can be good company for you this fine evening!”
Miku was surprised – that was rather humble. “I hope I can do the same for you, my liege,” she replied, curtsying politely.
He would die at the stroke of midnight. She needed only to keep his interest for three hours.
“So you must tell me more of Marchenland!”
The prince was holding a glass of champagne in his hands, though he wasn’t drinking out of it. Miku held one of her own, watching the bubbles rise as she conceived of some false details of her supposed home. A simple topic of conversation.
“The hills are quite spectacular in the summer, like ripples of green,” she said quietly, “I particularly like the freesia blossoms in the spring near the coast.”
“I see, I see…” Kaito said, nodding his head attentively, “I can only imagine how lovely the scents are…”
Miku tried to bury the memories of sleeping near the hearth, waking up covered in soot.
The prince stared out the open windows into the palace gardens. “My grandmother’s favorite flower was the rose… so we’ve got plenty of them planted here in the palace. I think she was a little sad she didn’t have a daughter to name her after the roses… and I guess my father should consider himself lucky she didn’t name him “Rose” anyway.”
Miku found herself chuckling at his little joke. “Still, to see a field of flowers at the beaches… you must be quite lucky, Countess.”
“Oh, but doesn’t your family have a vacation palace in the Zellen Sea? I’ve heard it’s quite lovely in summer…”
She knew about it because she’d heard people grumbling about such an extravagance while so many were starving.
Kaito suddenly took a quick gulp out of his champagne, causing Miku to raise an eyebrow at his odd behavior. “Y…yes, you’re right, of course it is!” he said, trying to recover.
He seemed kind of air-headed. He’d never see her coming.
“Pardon my rudeness, your highness, but you seem to have eaten your ice cream too quickly.”
The Prince laughed as he rubbed his head, setting down his empty ice cream dish. “I can’t help it… I’ve loved this since I was a child.”
Miku had eaten her dish much slower – savoring it in fact. The last time she’d been allowed a treat like this, her father was still alive… they still had the means for a trip in the summer where she’d tried her first ice cream cone…
But of course, to Kaito, her slow eating was simply a sign of her polite manners. “I wonder…” he murmured, “If it’s as easy for everyone in this kingdom to afford sweets…”
Kaito looked away nervously. “I’m sorry,” he said, “Such matters are probably not appropriate for a party…”
He noticed Miku’s slowly eaten ice cream. “Ah, I’m even distracting you from your meal…”
“It’s good of you to care about them…” Miku whispered.
Kaito blinked in surprise. “Of course I do!” he said, “They’re part of Estmarch too, right? They deserve to live safely and in prosperity!”
‘Nobody can live like that with your parents still alive,’ Miku thought bitterly.
She began to wonder if that could happen with Kaito alive either… she wasn’t supposed to even think about things like this. It didn’t matter who Kaito was or what he wanted or whether his life would impact anyone else’s. His fate was to die and he would never impact anyone else after the clock struck twelve.
Kaito looked around carefully, but his personal bodyguard was keeping their distance. He leaned in closer. “Do the people of Marchenland live well?” he said quietly, “Are they taken care of? Do they have enough to eat? How have the wars impacted them?”
Miku hadn’t been prepared for a question like this. She’d been trained for pleasantries, not politics. Kaito’s own kingdom didn’t resemble the glamour of the party…
She began to imagine how she wished her own life had gone as she conjured up a story for him. “It’s not always easy… but we try to look out for them. We have programs to keep shelter for the less fortunate… we try and provide them means for employment… and we try to stay out of conflict so they need not die in war.”
A kingdom of her dreams.
“… we should be doing that everywhere in Estmarch…” Kaito said in an even lower voice.
“You’re the Prince… you can ensure that…” Miku began to say.
“I’m a glorified figurehead…” Kaito spat, “As if anyone would ever…”
He stopped short. “I’m sorry for the unpleasantness…”
Miku stopped him. “You care for them though… you won’t always be a Prince. Someday Estmarch will belong to you and you can change things for the better.”
Another lie. Kaito would never be King. Because of Miku.
Because it was his fate.
But she found herself wanting him to feel better somehow… as if his mood was relevant…
As if she cared about what happened to him?
It did make him smile. “I hope I can live up to such a lofty goal, but I intend to do whatever I must to make that happen.”
Kaito watched a waltz begin in the ballroom. “Countess,” he said gently, “Let’s set this aside a moment. Would you join me in a dance?”
As his gloved hand gently clutched Miku’s she felt her heart leap.
Miku twirled around along the dance floor, her glass slippers shining in the light as the waltz swelled around her and her charming dance partner. Of course her training had included dancing – she was chosen to take the life of a noble, she would have to be able to impersonate one as well.
The Prince wasn’t half bad either.
“I hope Meiko sings again…” he sighed.
“So, my liege is a devoted fan? Or does he wish to trade partners?”
Kaito looked worried until Miku laughed softly, causing him to blush as he realized she was merely joking. Surely such casual teasing would have upset the other members of the aristocracy, but Kaito laughed lightly. “Her music is quite the weakness of mine! I’ve purchased all of her records… and I begged my parents to invite here to the ball tonight! But it’s not just for my sake… Even having her here in Estmarch right now is a boon for us, given how difficult things have gotten with Nordland right now… I hoped it might smooth things over…”
‘Because your parents are planning for another war…’
She still didn’t know how this man could be so ignorant of the world, of the nature of the conflicts that ripped across the Uralian continent, wars that absorbed ever more territory into Estmarch’s borders. She’d earlier chalked it up to him being callous or idiotic, but after his speech at dinner, it was obvious he had a more genuine interest in what happened around him. Was someone keeping it all from him?
What did it matter?
“… I hope they’re treating her well… she seemed so kind when I met her tonight.”
He pulled his dance partner closer. “I’m sorry, I should be paying you more attention… you’re a very patient young woman.”
Miku was just holding his attention, but hearing him speak to her with such unguarded trust…
‘No. He’s going to die. I’m going to kill him. I can’t…’
“Is there anyone like that in Marchenland?”
“Oh… nobody like Meiko, my Prince,” Miku said softly.
Once she dreamed of being someone who could simply stand on stage and sing for fame and fortune… but that was not to be her fate either. Hers was to be a Princess. And for that, she was to kill a Prince.
Kaito drew her closer in their dance and she felt her heart pounding again. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen… they’d told her she’d been cast free of her attachments… her emotions had been removed so she could be the perfect assassin…
But every moment she spent with Kaito, she kept feeling her training slip…
The clock outside chimed and Miku almost jumped. “Oh, it’s already 10 o’clock!” Kaito said in wonder, “How the time flies…”
She found herself pulling in closer to Kaito. He didn’t stop her. She tried not to imagine what it would feel like when his warmth faded, when his perfect white clothes were stained with blood…
“The truth is… I’ve only left these grounds a few times in my life…”
The prince leaned against a railing in front of an open balcony. “Embarrassing, isn’t it? The few times my parents have let me out, it’s always been for a carriage ride or some show appearance, like I’m a purebred hound they’re showing off… they want the people to know my face, but they won’t let me see them or speak to them…”
No, this wasn’t right… he wasn’t supposed to be like this… but her curiosity had overtaken her... she wanted to know more about him before she took his life in the next half hour…
“I’ve never wanted for anything, but I don’t understand how they expect me to rule a kingdom like this.”
Kaito looked out at the stars and suddenly Miku found herself wishing Kaito was a cruel person. Or selfish. Or even just willfully ignorant.
None of this was supposed to matter, but now she found in the heat of the moment that it did matter.
“How have the Queen and King treated you?” she asked.
“They probably dote on me too much…” he said, “They say I have to stay in here to keep me safe. Every now and then they tell me the rebels have assassinated another noble. I… my mother has always been very attached to me.”
He rubbed a hand through his hair. “It’s a bit overwhelming sometimes. They believe so much in me… they’ve always had faith in me… as wretched as it is to be stuck on the grounds all the time, I know they would be heartbroken if I were dead. They say the people of Estmarch would be, certainly, given how much our family has cared for them.”
So he was safely cocooned within lies.
“Not that I would really know… they keep me out of politics as well… I don’t know how things really are out there. Surely if there’s so many rebels, they can’t all be simply anarchists?”
And yet he seemed to keep questioning it… was he just old enough now to see the threads holding him fast? If he were placed on the throne, would he try and tear everything apart? Or would he find a comforting acceptance of the horrible status quo and let it all continue…
She cast her eyes across the ballroom. She saw no familiar faces – but that was to be expected. Her mentor would not be present at the ball, but a Godmother would be to supervise. She wasn’t meant to know all the Godmothers… which meant anyone could be the one to ensure she committed to her task.
She was supposed to get this close to him to enable his demise, but that was supposed to be all – a false closeness, a deception. After the horrors she’d suffered to ensure she could shut her emotions off, why wasn’t any of it working now?!
Why was this Kaito’s fate?!
“You’ve been very kind to me,” Kaito said, and she found him turning a much softer smile at her. “Even if it’s just an indulgence.”
“It’s not…” Miku whispered.
“Are you okay, Countess?” he asked. She saw him so genuinely worried for her that she could barely speak over the lump in her throat.
“’Kaito’ is fine,” he said in a much lower voice.
“M-Miku… I’m Miku…”
She felt her hands trembling. “Marchenland isn’t rea-“
She thought she saw a white mask nearby and her pulse quickened…
“Marchenland isn’t really so wonderful…” she said, trying to calm herself, “I wish it could be, but there’s so much wrong in the world…”
“Miku, I feel like I barely know you…” Kaito said, “Why don’t you tell me a little more about yourself? You’ve indulged me enough.”
He leaned back against the wall and Miku tried to stop the flood from coming out. She wanted to lie and tell him about the glamorous life she’d wished for, of all the fantastic vacations she couldn’t have, of the warm soft beds and being surrounded by people who loved her…
“M-my mother was wonderful… she was so filled with love… my father said her body was just too weak to handle a heart as strong as hers…”
“When he remarried… my stepmother wasn’t really the same… and after he died…”
She collected her thoughts, she needed to maintain at least some of the lie. “We didn’t get along. Marchenland has fallen on very hard times after the Rose Wars, so we’ve sometimes done without, even in the estate.”
“You’ve even given up your luxuries for the sake of your people?”
“I’ve survived, my prince. We all have. We do what we must to survive.”
“But you care for others, I see. Even in such hardship, you try to find ways to let others survive.”
‘Except you. Except you.’
He was speaking so highly of virtues Miku did not possess. She had become a lovely trap for an innocent soul to be devoured by.
He was right in front of her again and she wasn’t even aware of the dampness on her cheeks until he lightly brushed them away with his hands. The warm fabric along her cheek, the comforting touch… she would never know this again…
She felt so cruel and selfish as she reached up and touched his hand for herself. She pulled in closer… he was just as caught up in the moment as she was...
Their lips touched and Miku felt his warmth inside of her, trying to overpower the cold feelings she’d lived with for so long. She tried to burn his gentle but assured touch into her mind, lest she forget how wonderful he was when he was gone… she rested her head on his chest and even found herself counting his final heartbeats…
As they parted, Miku glimpsed the wretched clock that counted down to his doom.
Ten minutes. She needed to get him out of the crowd so she could perform her task in peace…
“Kaito…” she whispered, “I want to… I want to see the roses…”
To him it sounded like a mere innocent innuendo.
“Of course, Miku…” he said, and she spied a redness on his cheeks.
Miku followed Kaito gently as he led her into a beautiful arrangement of rose bushes, trellises, and a glimmering marble fountain. “My grandmother put all of this in,” he said, “She saw the strength of roses as a symbol of Estmarch.”
Miku began to reach under her skirt, running her fingers along the hilt of the knife…
Kaito stared at them for a long moment. “… They’re perfectly manicured. They’re contained. They can’t grow how they wish… they can’t leave…”
‘Kaito, stop! Kaito, please!’
“More than anything in my life, I wish… I wish I could leave… that I was free of all of this…”
What could she do? This was his fate!
This… was her fate as well.
Miku had been born to kill a prince. A kind, trapped Prince who had never hurt anyone. Her entire life, up to this moment, had placed her in the Prince’s garden with a knife to plunge into his heart.
She heard the first bell toll.
How could she change fate?! One of the masked people would see her, and they’d kill her. They’d kill him as well, and then she’d die for nothing.
The second bell tolled.
She never wanted to be a Princess like this. What did it even mean to someone like her now, after everything that had been done to make her this way?!
The third bell tolled.
“I… I wish I could be free too…” she said quietly as she reached under her skirt.
The fourth bell tolled.
Miku began to undo the stocking on her upper left thigh…
The fifth bell tolled.
Kaito still had his back to her… he would never know…
The sixth bell tolled as Miku made a choice.
And steeled her heart.
As the seventh bell tolled, Kaito turned to see Miku standing right next to him. She was so different from anyone he’d met, someone who genuinely spoke to him and listened to him… did she even care about his station?
As the eighth bell tolled, he found her so beautiful standing in front of the stained glass window depicted the famed Estmarch rose, the moon shining behind it casting a veil of red light against her pure white clothes. She easily slid into his embrace again. She seemed so sad… he wanted to take that sadness away for her… didn’t a prince have the power to do that?
As the ninth bell tolled, he worried that this night would be their only night together. Tonio had assured him the Countess had been selected especially for him but… if his parents found her wanting… this would end immediately. If that was the case, then he wanted to remember every moment he had of his infatuation…
As the tenth bell tolled, he pulled back. “Miku… I love you…” he said. It felt so impulsive to make such a declaration so swiftly… but it made him feel so much stronger to make such a strong vow, without anyone to stop him…
As the eleventh bell tolled, he looked into her beautiful green eyes, like the fields of the Marchenland where she hailed, hints of tears forming in the corner of her eyes as she whispered back “I love you too...”
Upon the last bell of midnight, he gasped as he felt the knife pierce his back.
He stared at Miku in horror, watching the tears fall down her cheeks as his body grew weak from the deep, fatal wound.
Why? Had it all been a lie? Every word, every story? All that patience for him… lies to build up to this moment…
A princess who wore gunpowder smoke for perfume…
He tried to speak but his words slurred as he collapsed to the ground. His last thought as he felt the icy embrace of death claiming him was despair that he would die inside the false safety of his gilded cage…
“THE PRINCE HAS BEEN MURDERED! THE PRINCE HAS BEEN MURDERED!”
The ballroom shook with panic as the news hit, shouted out by a green-haired girl as she clambered to escape.
Chaos consumed the castle as gunfire rang within the halls. “Estmarch, the son of your tyrants is fallen! When the sun rises, an Emerald Dawn shall usher our country into a new age!”
The hail of bullets claimed many lives… a fire broke out as the palace guards struggled to keep back the rebels, but with the death of their beloved prince, morale rapidly collapsed. The idea of the royal family as fallible created even more panic amongst the assembled guests, leaving them simply trying to escape with their lives.
The prince’s body lay where it fell, soaked with his blood. The murder weapon had been taken away by its keeper. In spite of how violent his death must have been, the murderer had gently rested him amongst the roses before fleeing.
After confirming his demise, the guilty parties slipped into the chaos to prevent being easily captured. There was much left to arrange for as they tried to join the grapple for power.
It wasn’t until the sun rose that the castle was calm again… and someone entered the garden to collect the fallen prince for some kind of proper funeral.
Only to find the corpse missing from its bed of roses.
All that remained in its place was a single glass slipper…