Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 184

I watched James closely as his limo drove us toward the gala. Lady Pendreigh was openly showing affection for him, but I never heard rumor that the two were actually courting. There were numerous games she could be playing, and I was certain to only be seeing what she wished if a game was in play. Her affection for James seemed quite real to me, and I still had no clue what all he could do. His assets, however, were remarkable.

Over the past two days, I found myself captivated with his home. Great wealth was casually displayed with no apparent security, but his entire staff was formidable. Jarod regarded Mila as a person, not just a machine. If she was as sentient as she seemed, he was right to do so, and her value would be incredible.

Even Mila’s value was nothing compared with the discovery of living fey. How James found them and gathered them in his forest was a mystery. Had he really let the little one indoors on accident, or was he showing more of his power? The tiny creature seemed to regard him as an ally, possibly even a friend. Even a handful of fey was a very dangerous force, and I believed James had many. Just who was he?

“Since you’ll be with us longer, I was wondering if there was anywhere which you wanted to visit? I’d feel remiss as a host if I didn’t manage to spend some time with you away from my home.” stated James, noticing that I was watching him.

Did he now want to deter me from viewing more of his home, or did he have other assets to unveil? A straightforward approach might serve me best, so I said, “Thank you for the consideration, but I have seen more wonders in your home than I ever would in the city. I simply wish to visit that remarkable forest and see the creatures within at least once before I go.”

He casually nodded as he replied “I’m sure we can manage, though my secretary will likely require a contract. The creatures there are quite rare and precious.”

A contract from her was not a mere trifle. I worried over what this might entail. His words might even be taken as a threat. Who was I, after all, to argue with the one with Lady Pendreigh on his arm?

“I see.” I stated. “I’ll have to discuss this with my family after I peruse the documents then.”

Lady Pendreigh smiled slightly as she said, “I found the contract to be pretty standard fare for her, Duncan.”

I nodded and tried to fight the wave of fear which brushed over me. Aaliyah’s contracts included many, many ways to forfeit one’s own life, and I had imagined too many times what having her come for me would be like.

Turning to Lady Pendreigh, James asked “Did mother ever finish that painting for you, Alma?”

He was incredibly relaxed next to her, a man of power regarding her as an equal at best. He possibly saw himself above her.

“Yes. Her talent is quite extraordinary. I was very impressed by her work.” she replied.

I had looked into James’ family, but I didn’t find out anything remarkable. His parents were talented humans as far as I knew.

“Oh, so you’ve already picked it up? Mother never mentioned that you stopped by again.” he replied, a hint of disappointment in his voice.

Lady Pendreigh turned from him. Her face was still a porcelain mask, but she seemed slightly uncomfortable to me. What did he have over her? Was this some sort of code?

“No, I haven’t. I made arrangements for her to hold onto the painting for now, as I don’t feel the timing is right to have it publicly displayed.” she claimed. “Ah. Let’s have a stroll through the park, since we have some time. I do like this one.”

I glanced out the window but saw nothing particularly interesting. Did she want space from us to discuss something with him? I surmised as much when the two set out walking without waiting for my sisters and Jarod. Normally, I’d use spells to enhance my hearing and listen, but such a trick around Lady Pendreigh was dangerous. If she felt insulted, I could die. I dissuaded the others from trying to approach with idle conversation. As I spent more time around Jarod, I couldn’t deny his intellect. How was he chosen to be the apprentice of Death? Perhaps there was even more to him than I had guessed.

,,,^._.^,,,

“Did mother ever finish that painting for you, Alma?” asked James.

I was certain James didn’t realize how much he distressed me at times, but did he have to bring up that bloody painting right now? Every time I thought of that visit I paid to his parents, his anger at me came fresh to my mind.

“Yes. Her talent is quite extraordinary. I was very impressed by her work.” I assured him.

“Oh, so you’ve already picked it up? Mother never mentioned that you stopped by again.” he commented.

I released his arm and turned from him. I couldn’t look at him right now. “No, I haven’t.” I admitted. Then I quickly explained “I made arrangements for her to hold onto the painting for now, as I don’t feel the timing is right to have it publicly displayed.”

I could feel Duncan watching us, studying. I knew everything said around him would surely be relayed to his mother. Must James prod sore points right now? The Williams-Wynn Memorial Park came into view, so I gave into a whim and said, “Ah. Let’s have a stroll through the park, since we have some time. I do like this one.”

The limo pulled over, and I quietly thanked Mila for not questioning me. James stepped out and offered me his hand after the door opened for him. I stared up at him and found myself wondering again how a human developed such a perfect face. He was unusually attractive.

After briefly enjoying the view, James asked “What is your home in England like?”

I stared up at him, trying to discern how he came around to ask such a thing. Still uncertain, I told him “My father owns a castle, but I wouldn’t really call it my home. I only visited the place a few dozen times in my life. I should go see father again soon.”

He nodded, looking thoughtful and took a few more steps before asking “Where did you call home then?”

“Nowhere, really.” I replied with a shrug. “Up until coming here, I spent most of my life traveling. At first, I was traveling with my mother and learning the family trade. Then I took over. Mother probably wouldn’t have approved of me staying here this long, but Adelmar, my cousin, does.”

I was thankful that my cousin wasn’t intruding at the moment. He’d surely say something highly inappropriate about my stay.

“Wait. Was Adelmar the one who sent the tiara to Aaliyah as a birthday present?” he questioned.

I nodded, saying, “I do apologize about that spell I used on you. I hadn’t meant for you to feel unwell, but that spell affected you differently than it should have. I’m guessing your magic threw things off a bit. Otherwise, I would have stayed longer.”

I did feel quite guilty over that affair. James had done nothing to deserve such treatment.

“You were the one who delivered the tiara? I suppose that makes sense, given that the tiara looks extremely valuable. Why would your cousin give something like that to a young girl?” he asked.

I stopped and stared up at him. He knew enough about her to know she was far more than a young girl, but, I supposed, he apparently didn’t know enough. I wasn’t in a position to explain either. I started walking again as I said, “I do wish I could explain. I am sorry, James, but I am privy to a great many things which I cannot share, at least not yet. Hopefully, someday. Hopefully, soon.”

Taking hold of his hand again, I gently squeezed it. There was so very much I wished I could convey. I had many secrets that I needed to keep, not all of which I’d even be able to tell after we were wed. If we ever were to wed… Would James be able to survive if I were to court him? I had plans prepared to protect him from the worst of the opposition, but the wisdom of them was questionable.

I turned our conversation to Ancient Tribes of Earth to distract myself from my other thoughts. There were many events I had considered which could help keep our guild lively. With thousands of members, we needed plans that could involve everyone in one way or another, and I didn’t feel James fully considered them enough. Too often, people were simply glad for his presence. He wasn’t accustomed to having to work to entertain.

All too soon, the count in my head ran out, and I announced that we should be off. Arriving too late wouldn’t be any more acceptable than too early, and we all had to maintain our image. The gala was perfectly acceptable, much to my ire. I would have enjoyed seeing Maxine slip in her execution. Even I could admit that she was talented, despite her unsavory nature, but being knocked down a few pegs might help her realize that the world wasn’t her toy.

Chad was quick as ever to greet me when we made our way to him. Aaliyah was there, of course, grinning in that insufferably adorable manner. In part, I wanted to hug her like some exotic pet. I also wanted to throw her as hard as I could against the wall, but she’d only come back and execute me for making a fuss in front of her father. I wasn’t remotely amused by her choice of donation for this auction. Where I was giving a priceless wedding dress that had belonged to an ancestor, she chose to donate the very gun which killed that ancestor. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if she had pulled the trigger herself after forcing someone to enchant the bullet.

After the initial exchange of pleasantries, James’ parents joined us. They didn’t seem particularly glad to see me, but I could understand why. We conversed for a time before the lights dimmed. Maxine took to the stage, greeting everyone and explaining how the auction would proceed. Then we were treated for music before getting our first viewing of the items up for auction. I made note of what I would acquire as well as what seemed to please the others, just in case. Knowing the tastes of James’ parents particularly interested me, so I might find something suitable for each of them at a later time.

Some time later as we ate, a table near us went vacant in a hurry. I had overheard their discussion, so I was the first to hear of the robbery. Given the timing, I was certain this was Maxine’s handiwork. She couldn’t simply raise money for children without committing some nefarious act. Her reputation would be ruined.

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Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 181

I nearly dropped my fork halfway to my mouth when I noticed a light out of my sister’s eyes. Hovering over James’ plate with a slice of his bacon bigger than her held aloft by tiny little hands was an actual, luminescent fairy. I quickly looked to verify with my own eyes as well.

“Man-slave! A fairy! A fairy is eating your bacon!” exclaimed Emma.

Luckily, the little creature ignored her.

“Is that some sort of magic?” asked Brandon.

“She’s so cute!” exclaimed Brenna right over him.

“I thought all of the fey were dead. She is one, isn’t she?” questioned Jarod at the same time.

Possibly to himself over the fuss, Marco said, “I’ll have to figure out what she likes to eat and order doll-sized dishes.”

:This is really happening.: stated my sister and I at once, still disbelieving what we were seeing.

:I’ll text Lady Pendreigh.: agreed Mai, understanding my thoughts on the matter.

If this really was what we thought it was, we were all in danger.

James raised his hands for silence, staring all of us down until the loudest noise was the fairy fighting with the bacon. I was impressed by how much she was eating and how quickly she was eating it.

“She lives in the woods on my estate and followed me home.” he announced.

“You are a man of many surprises, James.” replied nii-san in his thick Japanese accent.

If not for Lady Pendreigh, we would worry what he would tell mother about this discovery, but mother wouldn’t dare encroach as long as Lady Pendreigh was here.

As the little fairy wrestled a sausage, James smiled and said, “I don’t think you’ll have to try too hard to find something she’ll eat, Marco.”

Smiling and nodding, Marco seemed to agree.

“After my leg heals a bit more, would you allow me to stroll through your woods and see if there are any more like her, James?” inquired nii-san. “This is quite the discovery.”

James looked hesitant as he said, “Give me a few days to think on it. Oh. Wait. Weren’t you leaving after the auction?”

“Due to my injury, and now this discovery, I feel a need to extend my trip, as long as you don’t mind me taking advantage of your hospitality a while longer.” he replied.

“Oh. Of course. Stay as long as you like.” insisted James.

“James, don’t move.” ordered Lady Pendreigh the instant she arrived. She was staring intently at the fairy.

:Seems we were right…: mumbled Mai.

I was just as distracted as she was, having watched as the fairy glanced at Lady Pendreigh before diving into James’ shirt, still holding what remained of the sausage.

“She really does find you scary, doesn’t she.” commented James as he smirked at Lady Pendreigh.

He might as well have struck her with the brief moment of distress that showed on her face.

Then her emotions washed away, and she said, “Funny, considering she’s one of the most dangerous creatures my family ever encountered. She could kill most of you before I could react.”

Before she was finished speaking, my jaw dropped. Images were flooding through our minds. In them, we saw Lady Pendreigh wreathed in fire and pointing at James’ food. As the little fairy hid, Lady Pendreigh swept up the last piece of bacon, devouring it as she smiled down at the little creature. We continued watching as the image went through other possible ways that Lady Pendreigh might take the food away.

:That’s amazing!: exclaimed Mai.

:I know… Why didn’t we think to take James’ bacon in such a manner!: I teased, despite being equally awed at the fairy’s telepathic abilities.

“Apparently, she believes you’re here to steal her food.” explained Emma.

Nii-san and Lady pendreigh looked confused, so we told them “She has telepathy!”

The fairy’s thoughts suddenly changed, picturing James angrily waving his finger at Lady Pendreigh. Outside of her thoughts, she flew out of the pocket and up to Lady Pendreigh in a most defiant manner. Then she dove back down at James’ plate.

“Charming, but she’s dangerous, James. We need to find a place where she’ll be safe away from people.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

“She has a place. She lives in my forest.” insisted James, staring her down.

“But she… the forest. How many are there?” she asked, closing her eyes. “I always wondered why there wasn’t so much as a bird there. Who did this? How?” She was quiet for a moment, casting numerous spells, when suddenly she winced before sitting down. She rubbed her temple as she said, “I can’t advise anyone to study the enchantment around the forest. There are defenses I’ve never seen before.”

Mai and I glanced at one another. The forest was off limits, so we avoided it. We never considered what might be in it. The idea that there was an enchantment there beyond Lady Pendreigh was frightening. Who could have made such a thing?

The fairy suddenly darted off into the hall with another of the sausages, and we wondered what startled it. A moment later, we saw the fairy fluttering around Aaliyah as she entered the room.

“Marco, could I get another plate?” asked James.

“Me too!” exclaimed the diminutive girl, wearing her secretary glasses and munching on the stolen sausage. She finished chewing and then asked, “What?” Pointing the sausage at the fairy, she said, “She offered.”

The little fairy ignored the sausage pointed at her, already eating other things.

“Busy day today, everyone!” announced Aaliyah, crawling onto James’ lap. “Boss-man, sir, you’re going to be late for training if you don’t hurry. Alpy? What’s wrong?”

“Hmm? Nothing. James, will you let Ai and Mai handle training everyone today and take me into the woods?” inquired Lady Pendreigh.

We sighed, having intended to spend the morning with Jarod and nii-san.

“Why? What do you want to do?” asked James.

“I suppose we can make time, but as your tenant agreement states, you’ll have to sign a visitation form to enter the forest and be escorted by the boss-man.” muttered Aaliyah as she looked at James’ phone.

“Emma, will you join us as well?” offered Lady Pendreigh.

“Of course!” exclaimed Emma, grinning at her.

We could guess that Lady Pendreigh wanted Emma’s company because of the exceptionally strong fey blood running through her veins, but we still felt put out by being given work and left behind.

“I’m sure most of you want to see them after meeting this little one.” stated James as he motioned to the fairy. “I’ll see how we can manage after gauging how the fey react with these two.”

Jarod was obviously feeling disappointed as well, but at least he might join us. He obviously had much he could teach in the martial arts lessons.

Everyone finished their food quietly while watching Lady Pendreigh creating balls of light and sending them toward the fairy. Residual energy poured off the little creature as she caught the lights and sent them back. The entire time, images danced in our heads, showing us different ways to maneuver the light. There was a questioning tone to it.

“What’s her name?” asked Emma.

James paused with his fork halfway to his mouth as he said, “Apparently, they don’t use names.”

“You’ve gotta name her.” insisted Brenna. “We can’t just call her ‘fairy’ all the time.”

Smirking, Brandon said, “Unless that’s her name.”

Brenna hit him, but he kept grinning. We agreed with Brenna that a name was appropriate.

“We could name her ‘Lucia’.” suggested Mai.

Nodding, I said, “Or perhaps ‘Lucita’, since she’s so small.”

“I like ‘Glimmerwing’, because she glimmers and has wings.” offered Emma.

“Could just call her ‘Laser’, since that’s how she’ll kill you.” stated Lady Pendreigh, though she was still smiling at the fairy.

“That’s horrible! You can’t name a girl that.” protested Brenna.

Looking intrigued, Jarod asked “Can she really create lasers?”

“According to what I’ve read, which is admittedly one account, these little ones created ‘beams of divine light which burned through scores of men’. The author is credible though.” replied Lady Pendreigh.

Jarod was grinning instantly, probably considering wacky ways to make use of such magic.

:Wacky, but brilliant.: admitted Mai.

We could never argue against his brilliance. He really was remarkable.

“You can’t tame them or reason with them. There’s no trusting fey. They feel, and they react. If you’re going to give her a name and admire her like a pet, you should realize that she’ll probably outwit you and destroy you in a moment of anger. Though I feel my family went too far when they attempted genocide against these creatures, I’m not going to tell you I approve of keeping them in the house either.” explained Lady Pendreigh.

Despite her warning, the rest of us continued debating on what the best name would be, at least until the plates were taken away. Then we demanded everyone, at least those who were coming, to get to practice. If we were ordered to act as instructors, we wouldn’t let Lady Pendreigh down.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 180

I wasn’t accustomed to the master sleeping away from the house. I couldn’t monitor his vital signs very easily as he slept in the forest. I couldn’t guard him against possible threats. I knew the Princess had been with him, but she left before he woke. The most I could possibly do for him was attempt to rouse him through his cell phone. I couldn’t even send one of the others to fetch him, since that would be a violation of contract for most. Emma could come, but would she ever leave again if she came here? I wasn’t certain. No matter the case, I doubted the master would want her to be wandering around alone here, despite the great power which she possessed. The forest was, after all, home to the fey.

I was aware when the master awoke by the difference in his breathing. Then there was the crinkling sound of paper, though I had no idea from where he would have received paper in the woods.

There was the sound of a kiss, and the phone rose, probably from the master standing. I doubted he would be holding his phone aloft, expecting the fey to bow before it. The idea did amuse me enough for a few simulations on what that might be like.

As the phone moved through the forest, I followed the its position, knowing the master was still in possession of it by his breathing, though I had no idea why he was heading in that direction. I realized he had fallen at one point, but there was nothing I could do to help him. His slowed movement worried me, but he didn’t ask for help immediately. After a time, he finally spoke.

“Home.” he stated.

“Of course, master!” I replied. “Breakfast is being prepared for you as we speak, so please don’t delay. Marco hates serving a meal that’s sat for too long.”

I displayed a large blue arrow on the device, so he could easily know which direction to go. I never would have guessed that the master was lost in his own backyard. Shouldn’t the fey have shown him the way? Maybe he didn’t know how to ask them. Nonetheless, he was coming home now, so I informed him of the day’s schedule.

,,,^._.^,,,

When I decided to return home, I left the boss-man a note explaining how I couldn’t miss my daddy’s pancakes and asking the boss-man to tell our friends “goodbye” from me. I even left a P.S. on the back, knowing he wouldn’t notice until after thinking I was being as tricksy as the hobbitses. The P.S. did, of course, baffle him further, making him wonder at the brilliance of my mind.

Mila’s worries over James were perfectly adorable. She longed to protect him but didn’t know what the best approach would be any better than my fey friend knew how best to seduce him. The fey was being as forward as ever, making James quite nervous as he tried to gently force her away. Had she used her full strength, he wouldn’t stand a chance. Luckily for him, our little fairy friend intervened, creating a flash of light while chewing out our amorous friend.

Another of the fey started examining James’ pants. They had a vague understanding of clothing, tending to remove and discard them when people were “trapped” in them. As James attempted to communicate with our friends, I also watched the distant past where auntie first learned of the fey’s tendencies toward clothing. She was most adorable in her stern rejection of their aid, keeping her clothes from moving through use of her magic.

James learned how disheartening his absence would be for our fey friends as he tried to explain that he needed to leave but would return to visit. They were creatures of the moment, so his explanation was a bit confusing to them. He would improve greatly over time. In the future, James conveyed more complex ideas to our friends without the slightest difficulty. He was far older there, casual ruler of a vast empire that stretched across the stars. I loved watching him grow.

In the present, James’ wandering mind let him learn of how fey saw familial bonds, though he didn’t fully understand it yet. There were too many nuances for him to catch for now. Then he got to see Emma and learn of how the fey would watch when she came to play. His embarrassment at seeing her skinny dipping in the pond through their vision was sooo cute. Most boys his age would have held onto the image with all they had, but James pushed the thought out of his head as he did too many things. He didn’t feel himself ready yet to think on such things, even forgetting his own dreams quickly.

James attempted to instruct our little fairy friend to guide him through the forest, but she grew distracted far too quickly by her desire to play. She wanted to show him every part of her home and share the joys she knew.

When he stumbled, the fey were all confused. Tripping was entirely unnatural for them, and they didn’t know what James was doing. Had he simply asked for help, his little bruise could’ve been healed in under half the time, but he wouldn’t have wanted to be there that long.

I was already smelling Marco’s cooking and even enjoying the tastes of the meal. My daddy’s pancakes were made with love and perfectly reasonable skill for a human, but his best day as a chef couldn’t compete with Marco’s worst back when Marco was only ten. Marco was a prodigy in the kitchen with a true love for food that helped him surpass the works of others by leaps and bounds. Now that he had a home, he knew a happiness that he hadn’t known he was missing.

James did that to people often. His magic affected emotions greatly, helping others to feel what he felt. Unfortunately for those others, his anger seeped into them as something distinctly foreign and terrifying in its presence. No one gave furious speeches quite like my boss-man, and no one who heard one wanted to do so again. I could do worse, but that wasn’t my shtick.

Finally realizing that our little friend wasn’t being entirely helpful, James asked Mila for help. She gladly showed him the way, wanting to pick up his presence on all of her sensors.

James underestimated our little friend as he made his way toward the house. He thought he had sent her away, but she wouldn’t leave him if she could help it. The fey were intensely emotional about everything and could seem to forget those emotions in the blink of an eye if distracted. The full intensity of the emotions would return with a reminder and be lost just as swiftly again. Our little friend was as bright as she was tiny, capable of focusing on more than even the average fey, and James never would leave her thoughts.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 179

“When you say ‘tenants’, do you mean these creatures actually pay rent?” asked James.

The master was on the edge of the forest. Just a few steps, and I would be unable to detect him. I didn’t understand the nature of the field around that place, but there was something which blocked me. Would his phone work in there?

“The fey? Not in money, but they do tend the forest for you.” she replied.

:Fey still survive?: I asked.

:You’ve seen them.: she replied.

:I have them labeled as ‘unclassified life forms’, given the variety of creatures I’ve caught lurking at the edge of the forest. The one disappears from all sensors at whim.: I explained.

:Wow! That’s amazing!: she exclaimed.

:You say they’re tenants, but I don’t have any record of them as tenants.: I told her.

:Oh! You’re looking through the house records. The forest records aren’t in the same place.: she replied.

:Oh? Where are they then?: I asked.

:You know that storage area forty feet north of the ballroom’s first sublevel? In there.: she replied, sending me a marker on the mansion’s layout.

:Princess, that section is filled with paper files that you had said I don’t need to worry about.: I stated, trying to express my distress in my tone.

:Why would you have to worry?: she inquired.

:Having incomplete data might cause me to err and inconvenience the master!: I exclaimed, knowing my concerns to be perfectly legitimate.

:Hmm… Maybe you should start scanning those then. They’re pretty old and might keep better digitally.: she admitted, sounding as if she were actually needing to consider the idea.

I sighed and said, :You already have them scanned, don’t you.:

:I do!? That’s awesome! I guess I could share that with you then!: she told me, sending the files.

:I still don’t understand why you kept these from me.: I stated. The most unusual part of the paperwork was that the tenant agreements all spoke of ‘service to the land’ as the sole means of payment, but even that was considered in Emma’s agreement once she became the official groundskeeper. :You didn’t want me speaking to the master about the fey, did you. Why not just inform me not to speak with him about them then?:

:Good question. I’ll have to think about it.: she told me.

:Do the fey actually count as one species?: I asked.

A massive file was uploaded onto my drive, containing an extraordinarily detailed analysis of their genetics. I started perusing the data as the Princess and James stepped into the forest. I didn’t like that my sensors weren’t penetrating the forest. James’ phone, however, was still working perfectly fine. I could hear their footsteps as well as those of others. I resisted the urge to ask the Master to pull out his phone. Inconveniencing him simply to satisfy my own curiosity was wrong.

“Are the fey dangerous?” asked James.

The Princess seemed amused as she said, “That would depend how you want to define ‘dangerous’, boss-man, sir. If someone were to attack your land, they would learn how dangerous fey can be. If you don’t harm them, they won’t intentionally harm you.”

“Alma seemed to harm the land a bit with her fire. Do they only guard the forest?” he asked.

“They can feel her magic and recognize her as one of their own, albeit a scary one.” explained the Princess.

The master then asked “If the fey can’t talk, how do you know all of this?”

“I’m the daughter of a linguist, boss-man, sir. Communication is easy for me.” she cheerfully replied. “That being said, most people can communicate with the fey easily. Very easily, in fact. You’re just blocking them out.”

Blocking them?

“What? How?” he asked.

The silence seemed to stretch as I yearned to hear the reply.

“She’s been sitting there, pouting, for months.” stated the Princess. “They’re really emotional creatures.”

That was no answer. Was she not going to explain?

“How do I communicate with them?” asked the master just before I asked her myself.

“You tend to block everything out, ignoring the world as best as you can. You need to stop. The habit of yours has guided your magic to block out certain types of communication.” she told him, still not answering the question clearly.

I could guess what she meant though, but I found the idea discouraging.

“Are you saying the fey are telepathic?” he asked as if voicing my thought.

“Not as most people think of it, but yes.” she answered. “Just relax, boss-man, sir, and pay attention to this girl. She wants to know you. They all do.”

How was I going to communicate with telepathic creatures? Well, ones that didn’t communicate verbally at all. The twins did seem telepathic. I had no organic brain for them to read. At least, I was fairly certain my mind wasn’t organic in any part. I didn’t actually have full specs for my systems yet.

“Hello.” stated James as if he too were troubled by this revelation.

There was silence, save for the breathing of numerous creatures including the master and Princess. Was he managing to communicate? I wondered at what these strange creatures might say.

“Stop fighting, boss-man, sir. Just relax. The flickering images in your head aren’t your own.” stated the Princess.

Flickering images? I easily could manage a poor video stream, struggling to unveil a movie. Was that what he was experiencing? Data streams were more intimate for me than for humans. I was far more aware of what was happening at any given moment, though I couldn’t claim a greater knowledge of their functionality than all humans. Jarod was quite remarkable.

“Ouch!” exclaimed the Master.

“Wrong sort of meditating, boss-man, sir. Don’t look inward. Look out.” commanded the Princess.

I wished so much that I could see what was happening. How had he been injured? What were they seeing?

The Princess explained :I pinched him to get his attention.:

An image stream suddenly became available, and I found myself watching the master, surrounded by creatures. The clarity was incredible. There was so much to follow. The master suddenly looked disturbed as if he didn’t like what was happening.

“That one does like you a bit much I suppose.” stated the Princess.

“You… you saw that too?” he asked.

I realized I was seeing through the Princess’ own eyes as the image jerked. She was nodding. From the vantage point when she looked up at the master, I guessed that she was sitting on his lap.

“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. She’s just like that. Ever since she snuck into the house during the ghost hunt, she’s been crazy about you.” she explained.

I recognized the one to which she referred. She had been barely more than a sensor blip during the event, but I had detected her around the edge of the forest on multiple occasions. She was one that frequently visited the pond outside of the forest as well.

“How do you make sense of all that?” asked James. “I felt so overwhelmed.”

“You’ll be able to handle it much better with a bit of practice.” the Princess assured him.

“Well, I’m glad the fey aren’t so overly affected by my magic.” he stated.

“Actually, they are.” she replied.

“What!?” he asked, looking quite startled.

“There-there, boss-man, sir. They don’t get emotionally overwhelmed, and they’ll always give you space when I’m around.” she assured him.

“Why do they give you space?” he asked.

“The fey see me differently than you do, boss-man, sir.” she teased.

He stared at her for a while as if considering something. Then he asked “Why did they all gather here on my land?”

“They’ve been here for as many years as the ghost stories surrounding this place, boss-man, sir. They stay here because they’re safe in these woods. You literally have an enchanted forest in your backyard. Pretty cool, huh!?” she exclaimed.

After some more consideration, he asked “Does Alma know about this?”

“You’d be surprised what that girl can miss, boss-man, sir. Someone a bit more clever even than her placed the enchantment here. No offense, but you could search for years and never notice it even now that you know about it, boss-man, sir.” she informed him.

“Good thing I have a secretary far more clever than me. How did you find out about it?” he inquired.

I heard the sound of a yawn, and her eyes shut for a moment.

Then she said, “I know who placed the enchantment.”

“Any chance you’ll introduce me to this person some day? I could obviously learn a thing or two from someone capable of this.” he declared.

The image was starting to fade. Was she falling asleep? Well, pretending to fall asleep would be a more accurate assessment. Even when the Princess appeared to be asleep, her mind was racing far beyond anything I could process. As the data stream ended, I wondered at how much I still had to learn.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 178

James was home. I felt his presence, the heat from his body as he stepped out of the limousine. The flames around me intensified as where he had been came to mind again. Why had he gone on a date with Maxine of all people? What use did he have of her when I had vastly more resources? Wasn’t I enough company?

I took a deep breath and calmed the fires around me as I calmed myself. I needed isolation at the moment. An errant thought of annoyance could be enough to incinerate someone if I wasn’t careful. Every moment of every day needed to be cool and calm to avoid casualties, but the temper within me fought against my control.

James stepped into the ballroom where the others were at play. I fought the urge to cast a spell and listen to what they would tell him. I did not want to stoke my inner fire with more irritants. Ai and Mai could be more than a little vexing in their playfulness.

I took another breath and thought back to when I was a child, little more than an infant. Mother chided me for being unclothed, despite the isolation of the forest where I sat, floating in the air. Even then my temper was a problem, but I had run away without injuring anyone that day. She would not approve of finding me like this again. She never had, but she never commanded me to go inside after that day.

We had argued, which turned into a fight. I went nuclear, not even understanding what the term meant yet. The blast could have killed so many, including myself, but I hadn’t known. I was young, angry, and far too dangerous to be left unsupervised. Mother recognized what was happening as the heat’s intensity grew and created dozens of spells in an instant to save as much as she could. The shockwave still threw her with me cradled in her arms, but nothing save for a relatively small part of the forest paid the price.

James was coming, jogging toward me. He was so delicate, so very human. I knew part of my attraction to him stemmed from exposure to his magic, but I did not care. James was good in a way which made everyone around him check themselves, wanting to better themselves. No one ever wanted to do something which wouldn’t meet his approval, because disappointing James was too painful to bear. I knew firsthand.

I thought of running, knowing I shouldn’t let him see me like this. I knew he wouldn’t be able to see my body through the smoke and the fire, but he might be disappointed that there was fire. I failed to control myself well enough.

A quiet voice in the back of my mind wondered how he would react if I let him see me for a moment. I smothered it with all my might. Such a lapse of propriety would be far too inappropriate. We weren’t even dating, much to my dismay.

:Oh cousin, I noticed.: whispered Adelmar in my mind.

:Do be quiet!: I screamed at him, only to hear mocking laughter.

I sometimes wondered if he trusted me, so often he came into my mind.

:Cousin, you know I have faith in you. Just don’t destroy the poor boy.: he teased.

James was sprinting toward me now. Unfortunately, Adelmar’s teasing only made me more anxious. I needed to be calm. I carefully prepared spells to shelter James from the magic swirling around me and then unleashed them. He floated toward me, safe from the wind and fire. Part of me wanted to embrace his broad back, but I couldn’t, not now. Possibly not ever. The thought made my heart sink.

I took a breath and carefully said, “I apologize for catching you in a spell, james, but I am not currently fit to be seen. Please don’t turn this way.” I couldn’t risk having my sinking heart affect my voice as thoughts of losing him swirled through my head.

I knew he wouldn’t turn. James was completely trustworthy to his core.

“I was worried when I returned home and heard that you were upset.” he replied.

A smile touched my lips, and I felt elevated instantly. He really did care.

“I’m fine.” I assured him. “I just wanted to let loose for a bit.” He would forgive a little lie, wouldn’t he?

“Would you believe that Maxine spent the whole day trying to convince me of how just her actions were? I had a rather horrible day. Figure I might join the others at gaming for a bit to unwind. Care to join us?” he asked.

I had to fight back my fires the moment he said her name and felt unjustly satisfied when he admitted to a terrible day. He deserved better than this. I was supposed to be better, but the war inside me was being waged to the best of my abilities. What more did he expect of me?

Calm. I took a breath. Calm. Then I said, “In a bit. Do you ever let something minor get under your skin and have it grow and grow until you can’t think of anything else?”

I was feeling slightly more relaxed. Just being around James helped. The way he smiled could lift my day as easily as his anger could ruin it.

“I’m sure everyone experiences that from time to time.” he assured me.

He was so very kind.

“Watching my temper is far more important for me than for most.” I admitted. Then I found myself explaining “Only my cousin seems to really understand, having to fight with his constantly as well. Our tempers are volatile and so, so fierce. My magic responds to mine, raising the temperature of my body. If I fail to counter it, I can set things on fire with a touch or incinerate someone who’s annoying me.” Was I getting through to him? “Magic like mine doesn’t care about reason. I feel, and the magic acts.” Something was off. What? “Sometimes, I need a moment to myself, so I can just let things burn. Don’t worry. I’ll pay Emma to fix this part of the yard tomorrow.” The soil was gone beneath me, a perfect dip made by the initial blast of my heat.

I still couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me. James was fine. I started reaching toward him, and the fire simmered down to almost nothing around me as my foot touched the ground. If he turned, he’d see me wearing nothing but a thin, stylized fog before him; such an insubstantial barrier could never hold back desires.

“Oh, no. I’m so, so sorry, James.” I told him, realizing what I had done. The yearning for him was tremendous, and I was losing ground fighting it. “You can’t be around anyone for a while, especially not me. Find somewhere isolated to run.” The constant use of magic in this area had charged James with energy, the very energy his magic used to enchant people.

My arm was inching toward him even as I fought to keep it back. I wasn’t in control, but I was losing a war I had never fought before. I needed to find more strength. I felt so weak. I wanted to embrace him and… and…

“What? Why?” he asked, spinning toward me.

I bit my lip, fighting the words that wanted to come out. I fought against my arm, clenching my other fist. As I was now, I could kill him on accident by merely embracing him too tightly. I couldn’t trust myself, not with the wild thoughts taking over my mind. He needed to be away.

“James, please. Please, leave.” I begged, my voice trembling as I spoke. “I’ll explain later” I promised.

Just a little more, and I would touch him. I wanted to feel his skin and stare into those eyes. His lips might help quench the burning desire within me. I knew they wouldn’t be enough. With the last of my strength, I made a spell and threw James across the yard.

I was down on one knee, fighting for control. The urge to chase after him was so very intense. I feared nothing could keep him safe from me, and then anger flared within me once more. A naked girl seemed to appear out of nowhere, jumping into James and hugging him.

I almost killed her, but I resisted. My inner battles had merged now, anger and passion fighting for dominance. The girl was pulling him to the forest. Others were there. Dozens of creatures had stepped to the edge of the forest. Were we under attack? Move… I needed to move!

When I felt Aaliyah arrive beside James, I worried what had happened. Why was the Reaper here? I created a spell to protect my mind and ran to them, but no one else was in sight.

“What happened?” asked James as I approached.

“You’re looking scary today!” exclaimed Aaliyah, staring up at me.

“Where are they? Who are they?” I demanded.

“This is James. I’m Aaliyah. Is your memory gone?” asked Aaliyah.

I nearly lashed out at her, but I restrained myself. I was too close to James at the moment, too out of control. I felt his magic sweeping away the meager protection I had made. I didn’t have the will to reinforce it.

“There were others here. Many for that matter.” I told her. “We need to keep people away from James right now. Even now I feel my spell’s insufficient.”

Her gaze had shifted to James, and they stared and stared at one another. He started patting her head. What was happening. Think. My mind felt heavy, foggy. I was exhausted from the strain of my inner turmoil. No. No, no, no. I needed to make a spell, something to stop this, but my will was too weak. I could barely keep myself from embracing James.

“Please. Not you too.” I pleaded, realizing that James was even affecting Death herself.

“Don’t worry, Alpy. You don’t need to protect me. He can’t affect me now.” stated Aaliyah as a tear rolled down her cheek.

There was a sadness to her I couldn’t even comprehend at the moment. I believed her. James approached me, acting as if he was about to hug me. I imagined the feel of his hand against my skin and mustered all I could to move away from him.

“Please, James, keep your distance. Aaliyah, promise me that he’s safe with you.” I demanded.

“He’s safe, Alpy.” she assured me.

I ran and ran and ran. I didn’t stop running until I was out of the city and hiding in the nearest forest. Tears streamed down my face as I collapsed. I desperately wanted to go back there and find him, but I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t trust myself any further. One more glimpse of him, and I’d have no will left. I was so weak. How could I ever face him again?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 173

My sisters were completely disrespectful, dragging me out to all manner of places and treating this Jarod as if he were worthy of our company. I never had imagined that they’d fall so far as to openly display affection for a human. Mother was not going to be pleased.

I glanced at Jarod, disgusted by how he showed tiredness on his face after a mere night of frivolity. He couldn’t keep up with them, and I would never approve of my sisters dating beneath themselves, even if he could make them smile.

He also proved quite skilled at dancing and had a talent for languages. I wished I could get a close look at his engine design to see if his work actually did deserve the merit its price suggested.

James’ work, odd as it was, earned the respect of Lady Pendreigh. When I left my home, I was still surprised that she would move to this country, even temporarily, but meeting James showed me a man of great worth. He was obviously well-bred but made his own fortune, enough to have such a garish home. The computer, Mila, was astounding. My family’s companies couldn’t match her software, and I could only imagine the processing power behind such a machine. Mother would be most interested. My sisters told us far too little.

I followed them into the gymnasium at the front of the wing they rented from James. He was there, already making his employees train despite the early hour. They all seemed most capable, showing good form as they followed his instruction. Noticing us, he approached.

“James, nii-san was curious how soon you’d be awake, since he was interested in sampling one of Marco’s breakfasts.” stated one of my sisters.

I still grew irritated that they never bothered letting me know which was which. Despite mother’s intentions, I knew the connection between them made the two inseparable. Feeling everything the other did made any intimacy shared. There could be no secrets between them. They should show me respect enough to at least reveal to whom I was speaking when we did meet. If I asked, they might lie. They might tell the truth to throw me off as well. There was no way to tell. Yet James, they had revealed, knew some way.

“Mila told us you were in here, so we just had to come watch.” insisted the other one, smiling at him.

I might not have minded were they to gain James’ affections. He seemed a man of great principle.

James looked surprised as he said, “Oh. Sorry, Duncan, but we need to fit practice in right now. Brandon and Brenna” ― he gestured to the red-headed siblings ― “have work early today.

Nodding, I told him “I like that you teach your employees discipline. All four have excellent posture. Too bad that one doesn’t seem to participate.” I had looked over to Jarod as I spoke, appalled that he couldn’t even be bothered to train properly.

“Jarod actually has a different teacher. He’s quite…” started James.

I interrupted him, saying, “What? He can’t keep up with your class?”

James wasn’t even working on any advanced techniques in here at the moment.

“Jarod, get changed.” came a voice from behind me.

I shivered, knowing the sound. Aaliyah was here.

“Nii-san, I hope you packed something fit for an exercise.” teased one of my sisters as she lightly touched my arm.

“We wouldn’t want your clothes torn.” agreed the other.

Their glee troubled me.

“Well, this should be entertaining.” stated Lady Pendreigh, though no amusement showed on her face. No interest either. She seemed, as always, perfectly serene.

What would be entertaining though? I reasoned that they wanted me to fight Jarod, but how would that even be worth my time?

Then Lady Pendreigh said, “You just insulted Aaliyah’s sole student in front of her.”

Fear coursed through me. I knew what was beyond that innocent child’s face. I knew her true form and could never escape having seen it. I dropped to the ground, bowing in dogeza style, as I adamantly apologized and prayed for my life. She could take life at a whim, so disrespecting her was absolutely forbidden. Why hadn’t my sisters warned me?

“Rise and prepare. I will tell my student to go easy on you.” she replied when I was finished.

The child-like face and cheerful demeanor did nothing to ease my inner suffering. Lady Pendreigh would not have even raised an eyebrow if had I been slain in front of her, too great was my mistake.

As I dressed, I tried to ease my tension. I was alive and possibly forgiven. I could not argue with Aaliyah, but I felt insulted by her words. No human was a match for me in any sense. In my veins ran the blood of the great ones, a strength which has protected humanity for millennia.

I hurried back, easily beating Jarod. I watched James training his students, unwilling to risk a glance at her. My sisters were blessed by their ignorance, all smiles and jokes. Had they known what I knew, they would run in horror from this place. How did James ever procure her help as a secretary? He might be even more dangerous than he seems.

When Jarod returned, James called his students to the side of the room, telling them to watch. Jarod and I stepped to the center, facing one another. He looked completely calm. I never noticed his eyes before. There was an intensity to him, an inner fire I had missed. Still, I would end this quickly.

I punched at his chest, intending to shatter his ribs. He flowed around my first like he was made of water, slamming his fist into my throat. I found myself falling to the ground, gasping for air. How could a human hit with such strength!? I took far longer to rise than I intended, but my breathing was off. I felt bruised.

When I rose, he was still standing there, completely calm. I attacked faster to match my opponent’s speed. I had underestimated him, but now I tested him. I faked hit after hit, trying to find his weakness. I couldn’t. His skill was very impressive. When he kicked at my head, I found my opening, so I kicked at his knee.

Jarod jumped into the air, kicking me solidly in the head. I needed more caution. Time passed in a continuous stream of near hits as both of us danced around the other. I wasn’t sure how much time has passed when I realized he was mocking me. He hadn’t been trying to attack yet, just toying with me.

In my rage, I attacked in full haste. He anticipated my attack, slamming his palm precisely across my knee. Through my rage, I felt the pain as my kneecap slid out of place. I dropped instantly, screaming out in defeat. The fight was over. I had lost.

,,,^._.^,,,

As nii-san clutched his leg, Jarod calmly bowed and walked away. James was quick to go after him, probably worrying over something silly again. Lady Pendreigh, my sister, and I hurried over to nii-san.

“Nii-san, did you get a boo-boo?” I asked.

“Want us to kiss it better?” teased Mai.

“Out of the way, girls. Your brother needs aid.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

“Hai!” we exclaimed, stepping to the side.

“Isn’t that a bit harsh?” asked Emma.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“Nii-san needs a little teasing.” insisted Mai.

“I have to agree with Alma. That’s like when one of you went all crazy on my leg.” claimed Brandon. He grimaced as Lady Pendreigh repositioned nii-san’s knee.

“Oh, soulless… you were fixed in seconds.” I told him.

“Much to our despair.” teased Mai.

“Duncan will probably take a couple days, but he’ll be fine.” stated Lady Pendreigh as she stood.

:Our tips paid off!: exclaimed Mai.

:Jarod’s execution was incredible.: I insisted.

She didn’t argue. Nii-san’s pride would take longer to heal than his leg. He always did have a temper, and Jarod played it like a master musician.

“How did you find my student?” asked Aaliyah.

Nii-san grimaced before saying, “He is very formidable. Please forgive my misguided insult.”

“Nii-san, are you feeling okay?” asked Mai.

“Obviously not.” he replied.

“Oh. I knew you couldn’t really mean to say something nice about Jarod.” I told him.

“No, I did mean what I said.” he insisted.

“If you’re crippled for life, do we get all of your stuff?” I teased.

He laughed and said, “You two should show some sympathy for your brother. I’m injured!”

:James is back without Jarod.: pouted Mai, watching him come toward us.

“Sorry for getting a little excited there.” apologized nii-san. “It’s embarrassing to have so much trouble with a human. I’ll have to thank him later.”

“Thank him for what?” asked Jarod in shock.

“For saving him from me. Cheating is forbidden, especially when it puts someone so valuable at risk.” explained Lady Pendreigh.

Nii-san’s humor died as he nodded, ashamed of his transgression.

Aaliyah leaned close to him and giddily whispered “I didn’t appreciate you cheating either.”

Lady Pendreigh actually laughed.

My sister and I nearly laughed as well. Nii-san’s somber expression was priceless! He almost seemed scared. The assassin was certainly dangerous, but she wasn’t going to kill him without a contract. No one would be crazy enough to put a contract on him. Mother would call in every favor she could seeking revenge.

:She certainly doesn’t want us succeeding her.: teased Mai.

We didn’t really care, not anymore.

My sister and I pointed out “We did warn you, nii-san.”

“No one around her is normal, even the humans.” expounded Mai.

“James has a most interesting household.” I reiterated.

Nodding, Lady Pendreigh said, “So you can tell your mother one of the reasons I’m here.”

Nii-san attempted a smile, but he looked worried. He quickly turned to Brandon and asked “What can you do?”

Brandon smiled and caused his arms to grow in length and muscle mass, making him appear even more like the monkey he really was.

Not wanting to be shown up, Brenna changed her hair to black while tanning her skin.

“She thinks she’s only quasi-soulless.” I teased.

Nii-san then turned to Portentia and asked “And you?”

Shrugging, she told him “I’m invincible.”

Nii-san laughed, but we frowned, knowing she healed far too fast.

“That’s untested, but she does heal far more quickly than anyone else I’ve encountered. She also mastered the staff well enough to keep up with your sisters in a week.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

Our frown deepened. She didn’t have to tell him that much.

Nodding, nii-san told Portentia “Perhaps I can duel with you in a couple days after I’ve healed.”

Without waiting for a reply, he turned to Emma and said, “I’ve heard remarkable things about you. I would love getting a tour of the gardens if you don’t mind.”

My sister and I sighed. Mother was probably wanting to steal Emma away. James wouldn’t have it if he were told.

“Umm.. sure. Okay.” replied Emma.

:Emma’s not stupid. She wouldn’t give up this to be mother’s tool.: stated Mai.

:She’d be more interested in us anyways. We’re more fun: I teased.

:Oh! Great idea! You can chase after Emma while I take Jarod.: replied Mai in an equally teasing tone.

If we swung that way, we might actually consider it. We did enjoy Emma’s company, just not like that.

James helped nii-san to his feet before saying, “If you’re still hungry, we usually eat in the kitchen, honestly, but we can eat in the dining hall if you’d prefer.”

“As the saying goes, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’.” replied nii-san.

We each took one of his arms to help him along, but he started speaking to us in Japanese, asking us to help him court Emma. The larger problem for us was that he claimed this was his own intent, not mother’s. We were certain mother would approve if Emma could be persuaded. Emma’s magic was potent and immensely useful, so mother would gladly claim her. We didn’t really believe Emma would be interested and had no idea how to let nii-san know. He was too enthusiastic about this. Hopefully, Lady Pendreigh could help.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 168

:Just end this quickly, so we can get on with our day.: ordered Ai.

:No problem.: I replied, taking position opposite of Portentia. We felt insulted that James wanted us to spar with someone who didn’t even understand the basics of fighting.

I thrust my staff at Portentia and was mildly surprised by how she knew to sidestep there. I was moving very slowly, but I hadn’t believed she would have even considered dodging from what I saw of her before.

Portentia’s staff came down at my head, so I deflected it, bringing the bottom of my staff up to hit her side.

:What!? When did she learn to do that?: demanded Ai as Portentia easily blocked my attack while counterattacking.

Portentia and I started moving faster and faster. I didn’t want to believe this was the same girl who had been so easily tossed around before. She was keeping up easily. Her legwork was even great, maintaining her balance to block my kick while also deflecting my staff. I kept trying and trying to get a good hit on her, but nothing was working. Ai’s stream of suggestions in my head weren’t of any use. The sound of our staves connecting over and over was so loud, but I couldn’t let up.

Pain… I made a mistake and was struck hard enough to throw me back against the wall. I’d make her pay for that. I hopped back to my feet and attacked her again, determined to get my revenge for that embarrassment. I finally got a hit in, but her arm seemed fine. I was certain I had broken it. What was happening? Blocking grew more and more difficult. I was wearing down, but she continued attacking, attacking, attacking… Where was an opening?

I worried that my rib might have cracked as I flew back again, but my positioning was better. I kicked off the wall to attack again. I couldn’t afford to lose here, not with Lady Pendreigh watching.

:Mai, don’t… you’re in pain. You can’t keep this up.: warned Ai.

:I can’t let her win.: I insisted.

I fought and fought, but swinging the staff was becoming a chore. I hadn’t been so tired for a long time. All of my concentration was focused on not getting hit again. I couldn’t even attack, and she was smiling. I’d do anything just to smack that smile off her face, but there was nothing I could do.

:Forfeit. You’re going to get hurt even worse.: ordered Ai.

:No. We can think of something.: I argued.

Ai saw her first. Aaliyah was here, clapping and supporting a staff between her arms. What was that? I disengaged as I turned to stare.

:I’m not certain, but it looks familiar.: replied Ai.

We were certain that was no ordinary weapon, not with her holding it. What did the assassin bringing a weapon here mean? The staff was beautiful to behold, like a glittering night sky.

“Why am I not surprised to find that you have that?” stated Lady Pendreigh.

:Of course, she knows.: complained Ai.

Aaliyah stared at Lady Pendreigh with her wide, blue eyes looking far too innocent.

My sister and I might get berated for failing to study some ancient text we were assigned years ago at this rate, but I couldn’t complain at the moment. I was thankful to be catching my breath. I felt like I might fall over if my grip on the staff slipped. How did Portentia get so strong?

“Are you really letting her have such a dangerous weapon?” demanded Lady Pendreigh.

Aaliyah grinned widely as she nodded in excitement and said, “Yep! This is for Portentia!”

I shuddered. The idea of Portentia, with her crazy ideas of being a superhero, wielding a powerful weapon was too much.

“May I know the reason?” asked Lady Pendreigh.

Aaliyah nodded enthusiastically.

“Well…?” questioned Lady Pendreigh expectantly.

“A superhero needs to be able to fight villains, and this will help!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

My sister and I groaned.

“OW!” exclaimed James. He was staring down at his hand which was held by Lady Pendreigh’s.

Lady Pendreigh actually looked distraught as she said, “I’m so, so sorry, james. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

:I can’t blame her. We’d feel bad if either of us hurt James.: I admitted.

:At least Jarod’s not here for this.: added Ai.

Neither of us wanted him to see my humiliation or Lady Pendreigh’s lapse. He always seemed to think of us as “just people” and was prone to pointing out everyone made mistakes. When did he make mistakes?

I watched as Aaliyah crossed the room and presented the staff to Portentia. There was palpable excitement exuding from Portentia as she caressed the staff.

“The writing along the shaft is in xiǎozhuàn, also known as ‘lesser seal script’. The Chinese poem describes the time between one day and the next and relates it to a time between life and death, as if time freezes in those moments. To my family, the staff is known as ‘Midnight’. One of my ancestors was toying with the wielder of that staff when he died. He meant to block the end with his palm, but a blade came up through his hand and into his skull. The wielder fought her way out of his camp and disappeared.” explained Lady Pendreigh.

With such a history behind the staff, I felt even more uncomfortable with Portentia having it. I could feel Ai’s anxiety matching my own.

After Portentia took hold, Aaliyah signed <Twist the grip away from you while firmly holding the lower half. Then slide the grip downward.>

Portentia followed the instruction, causing the upper portion to segment and slide over the bottom to reveal a large blade.

“After you master Midnight, you’ll be able to beat down armored villains!” exclaimed Aaliyah excitedly.

:Why must the assassin be encouraging this hobby?: complained Ai.

:I wish I knew.: I agreed.

Nodding, Portentia pushed the grip back up and twisted it back around.

“Stop!” exclaimed Aaliyah, waving her arms wildly. Then she grimaced as a blade shot out of the lower portion into Portentia’s abdomen.

Aaliyah poked the flat of the blade with her fingertip as she said, “You twisted too far.”

Portentia pulled the blade free and exclaimed “I just bought this shirt!”

:What? She was stabbed and is complaining about her cheap clothing?: I questioned.

:No way.: stated Ai in shock.

“That’s completely unfair.” I agreed, staring at Portentia’s stomach. There wasn’t even a mark. She seemed to be completely healed.

“I know, right? I’ve only worn this shirt once. I really need to learn how to sew sometime.” suggested Portentia as if we cared about her shirt.

Exasperated, Ai explained “Not that. My sister was referring to your healing. Your wound closed the instant the blade was out.”

Portentia shrugged as if that was nothing and twisted the grip to retract the bloody blade.

“You probably should at least clean the blade off.” suggested James.

“Our floor as well.” we insisted together, though my sister and I were feeling more disturbed by Portentia’s healing than by the floor. We had underestimated her. In a prolonged fight, we stood no chance, and she was far too skilled now to beat her quickly without magic.

Portentia sighed, twisted the blade back out, and said, “Yeah. You’re right. Got a mop and bucket?”

We rolled our eyes and summoned water from the other room to sweep away the mess. After cleaning the floor, we directed the water to the blade, not wanting such a weapon sullied despite its new owner.

My mouth fell open as the water broke free of our control.

“Well, that was somewhat unexpected.” stated Lady Pendreigh without sounding remotely surprised.

James was laughing.

Ai quickly took control of the filthy water and sent it to the drain, but my eyes were locked on the blade where Portentia’s blood seemed to be sucked inside.

“Look at the blade.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

I glanced at her. She was speaking to James.

“Portentia’s blood is magical?” asked Ai.

“A fair assessment.” stated Lady Pendreigh.

“Are you sure the weapon isn’t just self-cleaning?” asked Portentia.

Alma’s flat stare spoke volumes to us as she told Portentia “You’ve surely noticed that your blood will simply disappear given time.”

Shrugging, Portentia said, “Well, yeah, but…” She paused for a moment. “Okay. I’ve got magic blood.”

Residual energy drifted over to the staff and disappeared as we watched.

“That’s really neat!” exclaimed James.

“Quite. I wonder what Midnight does with it.” pondered Lady Pendreigh. Looking over to Portentia, she said, “I doubt we’ll ever know, considering your employee will probably eat with the bloody thing now.”

“Aaliyah gave the staff to me, so I’m keeping it. You’d probably end up breaking it in a fit.” argued Portentia as she hugged the staff.

Aaliyah giggled, and Alma sighed. Even Lady Pendreigh didn’t want to cause a rift with the assassin, so stealing it was out.

“Just don’t spar with anyone using Midnight. You could seriously injure them.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.

“But I need to practice with it to get better!” argued Portentia.

:I am not fighting her again.: I stated.

:But sister… you wouldn’t want me injured, would you?: teased Ai.

“Whatever you’ve been doing on your own seems to be working well enough. The staff isn’t Mai’s best weapon, but holding your own against her is impressive considering your limited experience. You’ve improved immensely, so keep practicing on your own if you insist on using Midnight.” replied Lady Pendreigh.

Portentia stared at her, looking shocked.

:We’re going to be hearing about this later.: complained Ai.

:She’ll think we have been slacking in our studies now.: I agreed.

Looking around at everyone, Lady Pendreigh said, “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would like some lunch.” Then she turned and left the room.

Aaliyah raised her arms up at James, who casually lifted her and followed after Lady Pendreigh.

My sister and I watched the others leave and then looked to one another. None of this had gone as we expected when we had agreed to spar, but we did learn from it.

:James is taking us shopping, so we didn’t completely lose out.: I suggested.

:Jarod will be coming as well.: agreed Ai.

Things could be worse.