A return to the Earthly Embassy shows that their enemies may have gotten there first.
But they landed safely, and Sheska could release her death grip on the armrest once the engines turned off. Looking back as she undid her seat belt, Maria had found the seat Sheska had left unoccupied and was seated calmly, her hands folded in her lap, and not a hair out of place. Winry didn't seem to be bothered by the harrowing trip either, and Sheska sighed.
"Can you lead me to the Embassy?" Winry asked. Sheska nodded.
"I'll lead," Maria told the two of them. "You both need to be on Embassy grounds as soon as possible, so the ambassador can sort this out."
"Right," Sheska said. "Should we get disguises? In case someone sees us?"
"I don't keep disguises in my ship," Winry replied, "unless you want to pass a bed sheet off as a robe."
"Our best defense will be continuing to move quickly," Maria added. "If we're lucky, the landing caught the police off guard."
Sheska nodded. "It was just a thought." A silly thought, now that she thought about it. She mostly was concerned about Maria and her, since there weren't that many Earthlings, even in the capital. Winry wasn't as immediately noticeable, though she was the one who was actually wanted.
It turns out Maria and Winry were right. They had arrived near the end of the work day, when the streets were filled with people heading home. Once they hit the outskirts of the city, they could blend into the crowd at the first airbus station they came to, and ride anonymously to the hub in the city center. After they disembarked, Maria used a public telephone to ring the Embassy. Winry and Sheska watched as she waited impatiently, before hanging up. "No one is answering."
Sheska frowned. "Maybe we caught the ambassador at dinner?"
"Then we should have gotten Denny or someone."
Winry shook her head. "This is bad. We're not far now, so we should just check it out."
Maria nodded. "With luck, it's just another technical problem with the lines." But she didn't sound convinced.
Embassy Row was merely a few blocks down from the phone they had used, along wide boulevards planted with native flowers and lavishly adorned with fountains. Here they could no longer blend into the crowd, since the streets were finally clearing of the government staff that worked in the district during the day, and the tourists had retreated to restaurants and cafés for dinner.
On the other hand, it made the set of Peace Officer aircars, strobe lights flashing, a clear sight from blocks away. Maria put a hand to her holster. "More trouble," she said.
"Maybe there was just some disturbance at the Embassy?" Sheska replied.
"Maybe," Maria said, in a tone that meant she thought it was doubtful. "In that case, it should have been Denny who is handling it, unless it was serious enough to call the local police."
"Is there a back way in?" Winry asked, regarding the aircars with some degree of suspicion. After finding out there was a warrant out for her arrest, Sheska couldn't blame her.
Sheska shook her head. "No. No, wait, there was a hole in the wall that Elysia Hughes discovered. The ambassador was trying to get it repaired, but it might still be open. But that way will probably be monitored by the Embassy."
"I think the ambassador will forgive you if you take the back way in, Sheska," Maria replied. "So will Denny, even if he's the one called to check it out."
Winry nodded. "It would be better to be on Earth ground. Safer, maybe."
Maria nodded. "Sheska, get our guest into the Embassy. I'll go talk to the officers and find out what's wrong. If it's nothing, I'll meet you inside to speak to the ambassador."
"And if it isn't?" Sheska asked.
"I'll think of something."
"Um... Maria? Good luck."
Maria gave her a brief smile. "Go on -- there should be a cross-street that will take you behind the Embassy. Best to be out of sight before I get into range of the Peace Officers. Seeing you two ducking away will make them suspicious." She then turned away, towards the flashing lights and the besieged Embassy.
Winry took Sheska's arm and tugged her towards the nearest cross street. "Come on."
They left Maria to the uncertainty of the front entrance and rounded the corner. Embassy Row had a park to its back. Sheska had many memories of the ambassador spotting the distant figure of his wife and daughter through his window and stopping a meeting to wave, despite the long odds of them actually seeing him. It was well past the gardens behind the Embassy building, and Sheska could see the netting put up by landscapers to keep the Earth plants' seeds contained on Earth soil. Of the rest of the row, only the Venusian Embassy had the same precautions -- the other seemed to be content with local flora for their grounds.
The hole in the wall had been blocked off with marking tape, and construction workers had already been at work to clear away the broken boards from the wall, leaving an opening a slender person could slip through. The fence was mostly decorative, and something to anchor the security cameras to. No one -- or at least no one important enough to challenge the matter -- had ever thought it would be needed as something more than just a simple boundary. Until now.
"I'm sorry about this," Winry said as Sheska cleared away the tape.
"About dragging you in to this mess. I thought they wouldn't dare go after the Earthling government, so once I delivered the message, you all would be safe."
Sheska smiled at her as she finished clearing the tape. "I wouldn't have thought so either. Maria might have, but that's her job. Here, watch the fence. There might be splinters." She slipped into the back garden, working the threads of her jacket and her hair free of the rough edges of boards, then took a step farther in so Winry could enter.
Winry managed to not entangle her own hair, though she had to duck to fit comfortably. Sheska led her across the gardens to the back entrance, unlocking the door.
Despite the setting sun, no one had switched on the lights. The hallways and office space on the first floor looked deserted. More than that, they sounded deserted -- Sheska couldn't hear the sounds of the ambassador at his desk, or Denny's chair squeaking as he watched the surveillance cameras. Then again, no one normally would be at work at this hour -- Missus Hughes would have dragged her husband away for dinner, and only two guards meant that the security was automated at times.
Sheska started walking, feeling like a burglar. Or a secret agent. It did seem like a secret agent thing to do, sneak into one's own workplace. She grinned at that thought, humming the theme song to ‘Hawk Sterling, Secret Agent'.
Winry held a finger up to her lips. "Shh. There could be trouble."
"Oh, right." Sheska ducked down a bit, embarrassed. "If the trouble's made it inside, it'll be at the front lobby. Most of the doors to this space and the living quarters lock. That's just down the hall."
The two strode softly down the carpeted hall. Sheska took her keys out from her pocket, trying to keep the jangling from alerting anyone to her presence. When they reached the door that would lead into the lobby, Sheska pushed on it gently. "Still locked. I'll have to try my keys."
"Do you hear voices?" Winry asked, holding her ear nearly at the door. "Someone's on the other side."
"The door is solid wood," Sheska replied. "We won't know who's there until we open it and check it out."
Winry looked at her, not saying a word, and they might have waited there longer, but for a sickeningly loud thump of something hitting the door and a woman's yelp, cut short. Sheska went for the key to the lobby, sorting through the ring by touch. "That was Maria!"
"What are you doing? Whatever is on the other side just shoved something... someone... into the door hard!" Winry replied. "Isn't there a back way in?"
"This is the back way in!" Sheska said. "Hopefully Maria was a distraction." She heard the lock click and felt the door give. Despite her desire to throw open the door, she eased it open instead, hoping that it could give her some cover.
Someone moved in front of the door. Someone in Earth uniform -- Maria? It was her, though she had a nasty bruise on her face and her nose looked broken. She also was limping and had her gun out. Sheska paused before entering, Winry behind her, trying to see what had thrown Maria back.
"You might want to tell your guard to stand down, Ambassador," an unfamiliar voice said. Sheska couldn't place it as male or female, exactly, but the tone spoke of large amounts of arrogance. "I wouldn't want to hurt her worse." The tone of his -- her? -- voice make that statement sound like a lie.
"You're certainly being daring," Sheska heard the ambassador say. "Attacking my guard and trying to arrest me on Earth soil." She heard the sound of steel being drawn and she was reminded of the throwing knives that Ambassador Hughes kept in his office. Maybe they, and the target, weren't as decorative as she always assumed they were. "Aren't you worried this will start a war?"
"Oh, like I care," the other voice said. "Just wanted to see how many people I could beat up without having to make excuses to the boss. That's one," and Sheska heard another thump. She heard the sound of quick footsteps, and she shoved the door out of the way, charging in. She didn't have a weapon, besides the keys in her hand and her memories of self-defense classes taken long enough ago that she wondered if she still had the moves trained into her muscles.
She paused just long enough to see a stranger -- a Martian young man in a palace guard's uniform but with a wild mop of hair, dyed a green that was almost black, with feathers tucked into it as an accent -- charging at the ambassador. Maria was down, slumped against a wall, not moving. The guard slowed for a moment -- just a moment -- when Sheska threw the door open, and it was enough for Ambassador Hughes to take the knife in his hand and throw it into the shoulder of the guard.
If the guard noticed the handle sticking out of his shoulder, he paid it no mind in his charge. His elbow planted squarely in Ambassador Hughes's gut, and the force of his momentum drove the ambassador against the nearest wall. Sheska thought she heard something snap, and she prayed it was something on the wall and not in the ambassador.
Winry ran into the room behind her. "That wasn't necessary!" she yelled. She had taken out a photon pistol that Sheska hadn't even known she had been carrying, and had it pointed at the guard.
The guard stepped away from the ambassador, who sank to the floor. Sheska thought she saw a hint of red soaking through his shirt. "Oh, good," the guard said, with a crazed grin on his face, and the knife still sticking into his shoulder, "I thought that seemed a bit too easy. You're Winry Rockbell, right?"
"That's right! Don't move, or I'll shoot!" Sheska could see Winry's hands shaking as she pointed the gun at the guard.
"Is that so? Then why are your hands shaking, little girl?" The guard sauntered closer to her. "You might have bought that photon pistol, but you've never fired it at anything but a target, have you? It's different when it's someone who can talk back, isn't it?" He stopped, maybe five feet in front of her. "Go ahead. Shoot me. Let's see what you're really made of."
Sheska could feel her heart beating in her ears as she watched. The scene was frozen in front of her, like a set of wax sculptures. She looked to Maria, who had pulled herself into a half-seated position and was crawling towards the door, and then looked to the ambassador. She caught Maria's eye, as she glanced at the ambassador, who wasn't getting up from where the guard had left him. She crept towards Hughes.
"Come on. Shoot or lower the damn gun, little girl." The guard didn't seem to see her as she reached Hughes.
"Ambassador?" she asked, trying to check the bleeding.
"Sheska?" Hughes looked up, his glasses jarred loose from the fight. "Go find Gracia. Get her and Elysia out of here. I sent Denny to get her."
"But…" She wanted to say a thousand things. What about you? What about Winry and Maria? What do I do once Denny and I get Missus Hughes and Elysia out?
Hughes shook his head. "That's an order. You're a bright woman, Sheska. You can think of a plan." He pulled himself into a sitting position, and drew his other knife. "When I throw this, run."
"Still not shooting? I haven't got all sol, you know." The guard stood, hands on his hips, looking at Winry. "Well, how boring." His hand darted out, grabbing the pistol from hers. Sheska heard a snap as his grip left imprints on the barrel. He tossed it into a corner, and looked at it reflectively. "Suppose I shouldn't have done that. I guess I can always say you four were killed resisting arrest. So sad, but what can you do?"
"Now!" Hughes threw his second knife, this time hitting one of the guard's legs. Sheska saw the signal, and ran for the stairs that would take her to the ambassador's apartment, still keeping her eyes on the scene in the entryway.
The guard turned, this time starting to show a definite limp. He removed both knives without even a flicker of expression. There was no blood on the blades. He studied them thoughtfully, running a finger along one edge, as if to test the sharpness. "Very nice knives. Are these yours, Ambassador? Would you like them back? Or perhaps your lovely assistant would like one?"
Sheska swallowed hard, dashing up the stairs and through the hallway -- Denny hadn't locked the door behind him, thank goodness. As she rounded the corner, she nearly tripped before she took her eyes off of behind her. "Watch it," someone said.
A Martian woman stood there, her dark hair bound in an intricate series of braids. She was dressed like the sorts of wandering mystics Sheska occasionally saw in the markets, with loose pants bound below the knee and a long sleeveless buttoned jacket. Sheska looked down, and saw she had tripped over the woman's staff. Behind the woman, Sheska saw Missus Hughes, with Elysia in her arms. Elysia was wide-eyed and scared, and Missus Hughes was alert, a number of bags slung over her shoulder, and a frown on her face. Taking the rear guard position, Denny followed, glancing over his shoulder.
"Go with the others. We'll be leaving shortly."
"Who are you?" Sheska asked.
"Izumi. No more questions." The woman, Izumi, brushed past her then.
Sheska looked at Denny and Missus Hughes. "Who is that? How did she get in here?"
"She's an Alchemist," Denny said. "She came in through a window." He paused. "At least she can distract the intruder while we get everyone out." He glanced at the direction Izumi had run off towards, the one where the fight was still going on. "Is the back way clear?" he asked.
"It was when I came in," Sheska answered. "But we'll have to head through the front lobby, unless we want to take a window."
"If we have to take a window, so be it," Missus Hughes spoke for the first time, her knuckles white as they kept Elysia up. There was steel in her voice, though. "Denny, can we... what can be done for my husband?"
Denny nodded towards her. "I'll go back for him, ma'am, if Sheska can manage to help you two out."
Sheska nodded. "I can. Go take care of Ambassador Hughes and Maria. Oh, and my guide -- there's a Martian woman about my age downstairs. She has a spaceship."
Sheska saw something flicker across Denny's face when she mentioned Maria. But it was gone almost so quickly that she couldn't be sure exactly what it was. "Take care of yourselves," Denny nodded to her, then sprinted past, drawing his gun.
"Come on, Missus Hughes," Sheska said, pointing toward the apartment.
"Sheska, you know you can call me Gracia. We can use the fire ladder I keep under Elysia's window," Missus Hughes said.
"But it's not a fire," Elysia said. "What's going on? Where's Daddy?"
Missus Hughes shushed her. "We'll meet Daddy outside. It'll be like a fire drill, dear. I need you to be brave, all right?"
Elysia nodded, still looking confused. Sheska devoutly hoped that the ambassador would make it out alive, and they wouldn't have to explain to the little girl what happened.
They entered the apartment and made their way into the bedroom that had been set up for Elysia. Sheska had seen it before, if only because showing off photos of his daughter was one of the ambassador's favorite hobbies. It was painted in a pale shade of pink that at least half of all Earthling girls seemed to like at one point or another, with willowy furniture that could never stand up to a child in normal gravity. Missus Hughes motioned to the box beneath one of the windows. "In there," she said.
Sheska knelt and threw the box open, and found a rope ladder rolled up within. She stood up, opening the window, and then threw the ladder end out. It unrolled as it fell, not fast enough for Sheska's taste. Despite Denny and the strange Martian woman who had come to their rescue, and despite Winry still downstairs, she couldn't shake the feeling that the murderous guard was going to jump out at them from behind the door.
"You go first," Sheksa said. "Then Elysia. That way you can catch her if need be. I'll hold the ladder for you."
Missus Hughes nodded. She set her daughter down, then knelt to face her. "Elysia, when Sheska says so, you get on the ladder and climb down. All right?"
Elysia nodded, still with the wide-eyed look that indicated she didn't know what was going on, and it scared her. "Mommy, don't fall."
"I won't." Missus Hughes scrambled up to the window sill and hoisted herself over onto the ladder. Sheska could see her descend, barely, as it had gotten quite dark. Once she thought Missus Hughes was on the ground, she turned to Elysia. "All right, it's your turn. Want me to lift you up to the window?"
Elysia nodded and Sheska gripped her under the arms and lifted her the two feet to the sill. "Okay, you can just back yourself over. Your mother will catch you if you fall, so don't worry." A fall from the second story would hurt, and she might break a bone if she landed wrong, but wouldn't be as dangerous as if they were on Earth. You could almost jump it, but Sheska would save that for when someone broke the door down. She held the ladder steady as Elysia climbed over and down, then climbed on it herself. She barely felt the rope beneath her hands as she hurried down as quickly as she could.
"Sheska!" That was Winry's voice. Sheska dropped the last couple of feet to the ground as the rest of the group ran out the back door. Denny was supporting a limping Maria, while Izumi had Ambassador Hughes.
"The Embassy has an airvan," Denny was saying. "We can go around to the garage this way."
"What about the guard?" Sheska asked.
"Envy?" Izumi said. "He is tied up at the moment. If we hurry, we will be able to leave without incident." She turned to Winry. "You're Winry Rockbell, correct? Do you happen to have your ship nearby?"
"Outside of town," Winry said. "If no one confiscated it. We landed in a hurry."
"That will be our first stop. The boys... pardon, the princes have asked me to take you to them."