“You really don’t need to go out. I will gladly cover the lost income if that will dissuade you. Duncan seems to be enjoying your company immensely.” I offered, hoping James would give up this “job”.
I was certain that he was perfectly ignorant of this “anonymous” patron’s identity, but taking such a job with a guest in his house was not necessary. There was surely no need for James to even take jobs personally anymore. His business was clearly doing plenty well.
“I’ve already imposed upon your good will plenty, and Duncan will surely be awake when I return home, seeing as your family doesn’t sleep much.” he replied.
I shook my head in frustration as I turned to walk back inside. I felt tempted to tell him that he’d be spending his day with Maxine, but I couldn’t risk fumbling over some obscure clause in one of our contracts that would lead to some sort of penalty. Aaliyah’s contracts were intolerable. However, there was simply no choice but to abide by them.
I took a deep breath and tried forcing myself to calm. My temperature was still rising. I needed distraction to quell my magic. I hurried to see what Ai, Mai, and Duncan were doing.
“Nii-san’s touring the yard with Emma.” I stated.
“We did warn you of his interest in her.” asserted Ai.
“She’ll turn him down, so I don’t really see how that’s a problem.” insisted Jarod.
“Even if she accepted, there wouldn’t be a problem.” snapped Lady Pendreigh.
Her mood soured the moment she heard about James’ secretive job this morning. He was probably the only person who didn’t guess his client immediately.
:The soulless didn’t, at least not Brandon. There’s no way he did.: insisted Ai.
:True.: I replied.
Brandon actually wasn’t completely incapable at most things, but he wasn’t very observant.
:Or tactful.: added Ai.
:Or courteous.: I thought.
As the list went on in our heads, we wondered again at why James kept Brandon employed as a “best friend”. He was more suited to be a bouncer at a disreputable club.
“What’s eating you?” asked Jarod.
“Whatever do you mean?” replied Lady Pendreigh.
“I mean that we’re here if you want to talk, so you might as well try if you’re wanting company.” he told her.
Ai quickly covered Jarod’s mouth with her hand.
“Please excuse Jarod, Lady Pendreigh. He doesn’t mean to be rude.” I insisted.
She brushed off our comments with a wave of her hand before hurrying off somewhere.
“Come on, you know she wanted to talk about something.” claimed Jarod.
“No, she really doesn’t.” I told him.
“She’s jealous that James is going on a date with Maxine, but admitting as much is beyond her.” explained Ai.
“Must you encourage her to be ridiculous?” questioned Jarod.
“We really have tried talking with her about relationships before.” I admitted.
Then Ai said, “She’s already considered everything we have and a hundred things we haven’t.”
“Yes, she overthinks things often. That’s not always helpful. The idea is to help her come to terms with how she feels.” he argued.
“No, she needs to stop feeling. You saw her face…” I told him.
“Yes, she seemed irritated.” he replied.
I took his face in my hands, gazed into his eyes, and said, “If she doesn’t calm down, someone or something could be destroyed. You haven’t seen the power she possesses. She could level the city if she ever lost her temper, probably far more than a city.”
“Well, I have seen some of what she can do.” he mumbled as he furrowed his brows.
We sighed as we answered questions as he became more and more analytical about ways she could use that sort of heat. The mood was completely ruined.
I caused a tree to grow from the ground into the shape of a crutch as I asked “Are you sure you don’t want something to help? You’ve barely had time to recover.” Duncan’s limp was still quite pronounced, but I wasn’t going to offer him my shoulder no matter how he might smile.
“No. Thank you.” replied Duncan in his heavy accent.
“I can do canes as well.” I told him as I changed the shape of the crutch into several different canes in quick succession. I knew he could easily keep up with the shifting shapes. He had dodged the first time I caused a fruit to grow near him.
“The detail in your creations is extraordinary.” he commented. “Do you take commissions?”
“I’ve thought about it but no. I’m often too attached to let them go if I put much effort into them.” I explained. I was stressing out bad. Mai had warned me about her brother’s interest in me. At least, she said she was Mai. Might have been Ai. Either way, I wasn’t going to Japan. I heard enough about Izumi to never want to meet her, even if her son was cute. He really was, but I wasn’t interested in him. Mom would be horrified if she found out someone of his position was interested in me, and even she might be put in a bind if I offended him somehow.
“My sisters have informed me that you can work with any sort of plant matter. There are a large number of flowers unique to Japan. I would be happy to show them to you if you ever visit.” he told me.
I named off a few before telling him that I was familiar with them.
“Sorry. I am not so well-versed in scientific names as to recognize any by what you call them.” he replied.
“I get carried away.” I admitted.
We walked in silence for a few steps before I pointed ahead and said, “In front of us is the labyrinth. At the center are a number of beautiful statues and a large pond that we occasionally use for swimming when not indulging ourselves in your sisters’ pools.”
“Do you tend to this forest as well?” he asked. “The growth seems extraordinary in a city.”
“No, actually. No one goes in there.” I told him.
“We could take a peek.” he suggested.
I quickly said, “I wouldn’t. The forest is off-limits according to Aaliyah. You wouldn’t want to upset James.”
He bowed and apologized. I’d never get used to it. Ai and Mai were so different than their brother. Ugh. I wished I could just turn him down and escape back to the others, but I worked for James now and didn’t want to make a bad impression either. This was so frustrating!
I smiled to myself upon seeing the limousine park nearby. James was here. By tonight, he would be mine. He was incredibly handsome, but he didn’t seem surprised to see me. I was supposed to be an anonymous client, but the idea that he knew and still came thrilled me in its own way.
“A pleasure seeing you again, Maxine.” he told me, nodding to me.
People often forgot when someone near them was blind. Then they’d become overly concerned upon remembering. Ever since I developed technology to obliterate my handicap, I learned a great deal about how to make use of these tendencies to throw people off-guard.
“James, you never called. When I realized what your job entailed, I could see why. You must stay terribly busy. I hope you don’t mind me clearing us a date this way.” I told him.
“When I first started my business, I would’ve been taken aback by the idea, but i can’t say this is the first time anymore.” he confessed.
I frowned, wanting him to realize he shouldn’t say as much. Then I told him “Well, this will be the first time with me,s o you might as well forget the others. You and Lady Pendreigh aren’t exclusive, are you?”
His look of surprise was so plain upon his face that I wondered if he even knew how to be guarded about such things.
“We’re not actually dating.” he assured me.
“Oh? I heard rumors, but I was hoping you had better taste.” I teased.
Lady Pendreigh’s position and power would be most advantageous, but I doubted anyone could make use of her without becoming her pawn.
“Care to show me to the car?” I asked, holding out my arm.
He took my arm and guided me over to the limousine, gently helping me inside. I still didn’t understand my feelings toward James. I had only met him the once, but I could tell right away that he was something special. He looked far better without the elaborate makeup he had worn at the convention.
“I’m a bit parched. Mind pouring me some water?” I asked.
He was quick to respond… attentive.
“So where would you like to go first?” he asked.
“There happens to be a branch of my favorite restaurant in town. Have you ever been to the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce?” she asked.
He nodded at first, but then he quickly said, “Yes, actually. You have good taste.”
I was well aware he held significant shares in the restaurant, having looked into his holdings thoroughly. How he managed to get those shares was the more important question. They typically weren’t for sale. If I could persuade James to use his influence, I might be able to study some of the technology the restaurant used.
Along the way, I spoke to James of the city and my joy at different parts of it, comparing and contrasting with my own. He occasionally responded, but I feared the choice of topic wasn’t to his liking. He didn’t inquire into my home no matter what bait I threw. What should I try next?
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.
“I noticed that you landed a few hours ago, Duncan. I trust your flight went well.” commented Lady Pendreigh.
“Yes, thank you. My flight landed much earlier than they expected due to strong tailwinds.” he explained.
:Nii-san wouldn’t really try to pull anything over on her.: stated Ai.
:No, but I do think he was testing her.: I replied.
Lady Pendreigh had smiled slightly. An average person probably would’ve laughed at nii-san’s joke had they understood he always helped planes along with his magic. Unlike us, his affinity was for manipulating air, gas of any sort, really. In combat, he could be precise enough to separate gases enough to combust with a spark, which he’d casually provide.
:Still not a match for us.: teased Ai.
:Not together at least.: I agreed.
Lady Pendreigh politely told him “Funny how often that happens for you.”
Nii-san smiled and nodded before raising his hand to catch a waiter’s attention. In Italian, he said, “Please bring out the wine you’re keeping for me.” Then he explained in English “I deposited a wine here earlier as a gift for you. I hope you enjoy its flavor.”
:His Italian’s slightly better than his English.: mentioned Ai.
:He really needs to spend more time practicing with a native speaker for both.: I agreed. :If only mother would let him call us more…:
Ai gave an internal shrug as she said, :She won’t. We’re a bad influence in her eyes.:
I knew she was right, just as she knew I wished she wasn’t.
My sister then asked “Nii-san, how long are you going to be staying?”
“I’ll be staying until the end of the upcoming charity auction. Mother sent a donation.” he replied.
:Lady Pendreigh must have orchestrated his visit.: I suggested.
:Agreed. She probably told mother about what she planned on donating while also offering a business proposal.: replied Ai.
We wondered what Lady Pendreigh had planned. Too great an offer would have drawn mother here in person, but something important enough for a courtesy call from nii-san was on the table, something that would keep him here for weeks..
:You don’t suppose…: started Ai, thinking about how our attachment to Jarod had obviously been mentioned.
:He’s part of her plan. We’ll have to wait and see what comes next.: I finished for her.
“Sixty-one Château Latour?” I asked, surprised by nii-san’s choice.
Ai quickly said, :Mother’s choice probably.:
She rarely let anyone else around her make a decision.
“Can we open it, nii-san?” Ai asked, smiling at him.
“The wine is Lady Pendreigh’s, so that would be her choice, though I would wait until our meal arrives.” he replied curtly.
Giving a slight nod, she said, “Let’s wait then. I’m sure you’ll find the food here equally appealing, Duncan. I asked the finest chef I know to rearrange the menu not long ago. Unfortunately, he wasn’t willing to take over as the head chef.”
“Oh? I’m surprised anyone would refuse one of your offers.” he told her.
“She shrugged and explained “He works for James at Somerset Estate. You’ll be able to sample plenty of his excellent cooking during your stay.”
My sister and I smiled. Neither of us came close to Marco’s cooking, and we weren’t so bad ourselves. The man knew more variations on more dishes than anyone we knew. We had questioned him extensively over our stay and had him teach us numerous techniques. Sadly, he was even better than us in regard to making Japanese cuisine, though we did manage to teach him a couple recipes he seemed to like.
“I look forward to anything that earns your praise.” stated nii-san.
We nearly laughed, but managed to control ourselves. Nii-san surely had no notion of how his words could be purposefully misinterpreted.
“What are you going to have, Jarod?” asked Ai when the waiter returned.
“We’ll gladly order for you.” I assured him.
Jarod casually ordered in Italian as if he had always spoken the language. We couldn’t control our grins.
:His fluency has to put nii-san to shame.: I suggested.
Ai agreed, saying, :Not that he’d admit it to Jarod. Did you see the scowl?:
She only saw it through my eyes, so she knew I had.
“Trust me to order?” asked Lady Pendreigh to James.
“Please do. I can’t say I’ve ever studied Italian.” he admitted.
Nii-san quickly said, “Please order for me as well. I’ll trust your expertise.”
We nearly laughed again, knowing he probably didn’t want to demonstrate his poor speech again in front of Jarod. Lady Pendreigh politely nodded to him before ordering. She was, of course, perfectly fluent, being the one to instruct us.
“James, my sisters tell me that your business started just this year. I find your success to be quite impressive, considering the niche your company fills.” stated nii-san to strike up a conversation again.
“Well, we’re managing to stay afloat largely due to my secretary’s amazing organizational skills.” replied James. “Jarod, on the other hand, single-handedly designed an incredible electric engine. The original prototype is what gets me from place-to-place.”
“Yes, I read about his design. Most impressive.” begrudgingly admitted nii-san. “How do you manage to find clients for your company?”
“I originally relied heavily on my website and viva voce, but Aaliyah, my secretary, seems to use some of her own contacts as well.” explained James.
Smiling, nii-san said, “Your secretary sounds like an amazing woman. I should like to meet her someday.”
“You already have.” stated Lady Pendreigh.
My sister and I nearly giggled again as nii-san stared in shock at Lady Pendreigh.
Quickly standing, nii-san bowed and said, “Sumimasen. My sisters failed to mention this.”
:Bit extreme…: I muttered.
:Well, the assassin is rather well known to our family.: replied Ai.
:Figures nii-san blamed us.: I told her.
:We’ll make him pay later.: she teased.
“Don’t worry. She gladly tells everyone about working for me. She’s even listed on my website as my secretary.” explained James, looking a bit confused.
We grinned at nii-san as his gaze turned to us. He wasn’t amused.
:He’s going to lecture us again.: stated my sister and I. We didn’t really mind. He’d at least be paying attention to us.
As we waited for our food, nii-san continued ignoring us as well as Jarod as best as he could. We didn’t mind that either, since he couldn’t say anything about us holding Jarod’s hands under the table that way if he actually was paying attention. Nii-san could locate people through vibrations of the air if he concentrated much like we could find people through water. None of us could compare with Lady Pendreigh. Locating people seemed effortless for her, as did most things.
Our food was quite good, and nii-san seemed satisfied as well. The wine was quite delicious, but we were surprised how much Lady Pendreigh seemed to enjoy it.
“You must try this, James. It’s pretty rare.” I insisted.
“I’ll order you a cola if you wish, but you should at least take a sip.” suggested Lady Pendreigh.
He looked hesitant, but he went ahead and took a sip. Then he said, “No offense, but I think I’ll have that cola. Alcohol really isn’t something I’m comfortable drinking, being underage here.”
“Ah. Sorry. Sorry. I never thought to ask your age. My family is highly resistant to ill effects from alcohol, so we don’t often consider such things, though my sisters probably could have warned me.” explained nii-san, look at us sternly.
We commenced with akanbe, but he wasn’t amused.
Conversation continued with pleasantries at a little business discussed, largely between nii-san and James. Nii-san was ignoring us again, not that we were surprised. He could be incredibly stiff.
When dinner was finished, we all walked out to the parking lot. My sister and I rushed to nii-san’s sides as the cars were being fetched, clinging to his arms and smiling up at him.
“Nii-san, don’t you want to ride in Jarod’s car with us?” we asked.
He crossed his arms, and told us in Japanese “No. You two need to learn proper etiquette before I’ll be seen in public with you. I am surprised Lady Pendreigh admits to knowing you.”
“Well, we might be home late.” suggested Ai.
“We’ll have Jarod all to ourselves.” I added with a grin.
“Let’s go, Jarod!” we exclaimed, rushing to the mustang.
Nii-san sprinted to the front passenger seat of the car, despite the witnesses. I argued with him a little about who should get to sit by Jarod before sitting by my sister in the back. Jarod was amused, and we convinced nii-san to join us, even if he looked rigid with his arms crossed. We still won. He was going to get to know Jarod no matter what he wanted.
“Looks like Jarod will be a bit still. I’m sure he won’t mind if we go ahead and start shopping.” suggested James, looking completely unashamed.
:We are partially to blame for not telling James the time in advance.: claimed Mai.
:He still should’ve taught Jarod to always dress up for a date of any kind with us. Having to inform him simply delayed things further.: I argued.
:He might’ve caught too many eyes before he met us had he known better.: Mai insisted.
James quickly assured us “I’m sure he just got a bit flustered when he was asked to dress up. You know what he’s comfortable wearing.”
Alma took James’ arm and started guiding him toward a store, so we didn’t bother replying.
:He’s so very tall.: I commented, staring upward at him through my sister’s eyes.
:Especially next to Lady Pendreigh, but they’re still cute together.: replied Mai with an internal giggle.
We weren’t going to say anything of the like to Lady Pendreigh. She was occasionally grumpy about her height. Both of us grinned the moment we stepped inside, looking around the store together. This place was worth the trip.
:I wonder what Jarod will like best on us.: pondered Mai.
Our thoughts had merged on that point, wishing we could read his mind at times. We were still learning how to deal with Jarod. He was handsome but had no sense of fashion. He was quick-witted enough to keep up against both of us, which was incredible for a human.
:The way he smiles!: exclaimed Mai.
:He’s always up to something, but the happiness is so genuine.: I agreed.
Lady Pendreigh had spoken with the staff on our behalf, and we actually liked a number of the dresses they brought out as well as some of the suits. The shoes were another matter. Several pairs were cute, but most were too dull.
:We do have a bit of a collection.: teased Mai.
:But we could always use more!: I insisted.
I felt her agreement in her mirth. We wondered at times how people managed without another half. One body wouldn’t have enough hands.
:Or eyes… feet… anything really.: agreed Mai.
Yet Jarod managed. He was incredibly productive and still would sit around talking with us about anything we wanted.
:The way he catches onto things is amazing.: I stated.
Giving an internal nod, Ai said, :I love how his eyes light up as he asks questions and makes comments.:
Jarod understood. He always understood. Unlike James who was idly staring around the room, Jarod always paid attention as well. We both grinned outwardly.
:He still can’t tell us apart.: teased Mai.
:James is a freak.: I stated.
We didn’t have a clue how he always knew, but there was no fooling him anymore. He didn’t even have to glance at us, and he’d know which spoke. Lady Pendreigh had personally analyzed our voices before. They were identical, but James still knew.
With Jarod still absent, we decided to start trying on our favorites of what we had seen. Lady Pendreigh actually decided to try one as well, much to our surprise. We smirked. Everything had to be tailored for her, since practically no one carried her size here. She did have much better luck in Japan when we all visited together, but there was rarely reason to see our mother.
We sighed, knowing she was going to cause trouble. Winning nii-san over was an imperative, but Jarod could manage.
:Couldn’t he?: we questioned, feeling somewhat worried.
“Hey, James. Mila told me you four were in here.” stated Jarod from the other room.
We grinned and hurried to finish changing again.
“Sorry. I should have thought to text you about it. Why are you wearing your glasses?” asked James.
:Jarod’s always wearing those things.: we commented to ourselves.
:They do look nice on him.: admitted Mai.
“That will not do.” stated Lady Pendreigh.
:The glasses?: I asked.
:She has no right to complain about mutlitasking.: Mai insisted.
“Sorry, but I don’t really have much occasion to dress up.” replied Jarod.
:Oh.: stated Mai.
:Of course.: I agreed.
We could guess how he was dressed. After checking each other over, we rushed out to save Jarod from more scrutiny.
Mai rolled her eyes as she said, :Black tennis shoes. Really?:
:Only Jarod…: I agreed. Then I posed and exclaimed “Jarod! Does this look weird?”
Mai posed as well, smiling at him as she said, “I look cute though, right?”
We could tell by the way he looked at us that he approved of both outfits. His smile was so wonderful.
“You both look great.” he assured us. “Sorry that I’m a bit late.”
Lady Pendreigh rolled her eyes as she said, “I’ll blame James, since the twins were already at fault twice today. Let’s get moving, shall we?”
We pouted but hurried to change. Neither of us doubted that she had been annoyed by the outfit she tried just as much as by Jarod’s current attire. After quickly stating what we were getting to the awaiting attendant, we hurried back out to Jarod.
“James, please take care of the bill for us.” ordered Lady Pendreigh before we were even finished.
He was looking at his phone in confusion when we stepped out, but we didn’t doubt he was worrying over something silly. Jarod, on the other hand, looked nervous under Lady Pendreigh’s scrutiny. She kept looking up at him as she typed something into her phone.
:Working, working, working.: complained Mai.
:She never stops.: I agreed.
There were times when we were younger where we actually did try to get her to take a break, but she never really gave into our pleas in that area. There would always be a laptop floating by or at least one of her phones with constant messages be exchanged. She made our ten to fourteen hour workdays look like shameless slacking.
:We do take several days off at a time when we want.: mentioned Mai as she took Jarod’s arm.
:Because we’re sane!: I exclaimed, winking as I took Jarod’s other arm.
When James returned to us, we took our purchases from him and then followed as Lady Pendreigh guided us to another shop.
“I’d recommend getting no less than a dozen suits ordered, Jarod. You’ll make a much finer impression at meetings if you dress the part of a millionaire instead of acting the part of a million dollar bum.” she insisted.
“Please, Jarod.” begged Mai.
Staring up at him, I said, “For us. You’ll look incredible in a nice suit.”
“Don’t you want to dress up for us?” asked Mai.
“We really do love seeing you in nice clothing.” I insisted, letting my bags slide down my arm, so I could play with the button of his shirt.
Looking from us to James, Jarod asked “Mind helping me pick some stuff out, James?”
:Completely smooth in a fight…: started Mai.
:Scared of nice clothes.: I finished.
:Only Jarod.: we thought as we watched him retreat into the store with James already rambling about options.
Taking a seat, Lady Pendreigh said, “James has impeccable taste in clothes. They’ll be fine.”
We nodded. There was no arguing that James dressed well. He was like some artist’s rendering of what a perfect guy might look like, but he was too stuffy. Perfectly likeable.
:Incredibly likeable.: agreed Mai.
:But stuffy.: I complained.
As we waited, we listened in on the boys talking about suits and their current wealth. We also considered what married life would be like for Lady Pendreigh and James. We could easily picture them being perfectly formal even alone together, casually chatting about the weather even if their minds were on a dozen other things.
:More like a million for Lady Pendreigh.: argued Mai.
:James might try to worry about a million things at once. Hard to say.: I countered.
She didn’t argue. We didn’t know how they’d ever make any progress. Jarod, on the other hand, was playful. He wasn’t against showing his feelings even as he analyzed ours. We were going to have such fun with him, especially with him moving into the mansion soon.
When the boys finally returned to us, we told Jarod about how excited we were to see him in a suit, certain he’d look absolutely perfect. He didn’t argue as we followed the other two into the next building over. Once there, we thrust our bags at James, who instinctively took them without a word. Then we dragged Jarod off to find him something more fitting for today. With Jarod being a far more reasonable size than James, finding some things we liked off the rack wasn’t a problem at all.
“You have to try this one!” I insisted, grabbing a navy suit off a rack.
“No-no. He has to try this one.” insisted Mai, handing over a black suit with a scarlet shirt.
:Isn’t it ruby?: asked Mai.
:Maybe it’s the lighting, but I think scarlet.: I told her.
Mai took that shirt back from him as I took the navy suit away. Then I handed him a plum shirt. Well, Mai did, but I had spotted it when I looked at her. Jarod had such lovely green eyes, and the plum-colored shirt would bring them out. Knowing we were going with this ensemble, we used a spell to take off the tags and caught them as if they had happened to fall off.
“These shoes!” I exclaimed as we approached the dressing room. Mai let go of Jarod long enough to grab them for him.
“Get changed while we find you a better tie.” we insisted.
He gave us a half-smile before doing as he was told.
We had some fun looking through ties and imagining what they’d look like on them, but we went with a simple black one with dark grey designs across it. Time was running short. The moment Jarod stepped out, we smiled at him and hurried to put the tie on him.
“Perfect.” insisted Mai.
“I’ll trust your instincts. Lemme get changed back, and we can be off.” he told us.
We quickly grabbed him and said, “No!”
“You can’t change back, Jarod.” I told him.
“There’s no time.” explained Mai.
“And we couldn’t bear to see you abandon the clothes we picked so quickly.” I insisted.
Nodding, Mai said, “Let’s go pay.”
Luckily, he didn’t fight us. Jarod could be difficult in his own way at times. James and Lady Pendreigh had barely moved from where we had left them, so finding them was easy.
Smiling, I said, “And we present to you…”
“For your viewing pleasure.” stated Mai.
“Jarod, the lunch-ready-jerk-who-stole-our-shopping-day.” we finished together, pointing at him from each side.
James gave a thumbs up while Lady Pendreigh gave a small nod.
“I suppose that will do.” she stated before turning toward the door.
Jarod nervously looked over his outfit.
“Ignore her.” I told him, lifting his chin with a finger.
“You look wonderful!” exclaimed Mai, hugging his arm.
“We adore this outfit.” I added.
If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have forced him to buy it.
The three of us followed the other two to James’ car. Once there, we quickly insisted that our clothes would be wrinkled if we all squeezed in the back, so the three of us hurried to where Jarod had parked his Mustang. I let Mai sit up front, so I could pout in the back.
“So where are we going?” he asked.
“Migliore del Cielo.” stated Mai.
“Just take a right two lights down.” I told him. “I give far better directions, so I really should’ve sat up by you.”
“Oh, sister… Jarod likes me best, and we both know I give better directions.” she claimed.
“Jarod, tell her you like me best.” I begged. “You know it’s true!”
“As if I could fairly pick a favorite between minds like yours.” he teased.
:He really is remarkable.: stated Mai as she rubbed the sleeve of his jacket.
:We’ll have him. Lady Pendreigh will help us if needed.: I assured her.
When we arrived, Jarod tossed the keys to the valet, and we each took an arm. He never seemed to mind the stares of onlookers, probably something he picked up from James. With James around, a group was guaranteed attention. The manager knew us on sight and personally showed us to the table.
“Please remember to be on your best behavior.” instructed Lady Pendreigh as she stared into Jarod’s eyes. “This is important for you.”
He was quite obviously surprised with how he looked at us, but we just smiled, confident that he’d manage without foreknowledge of who was visiting.
“Nii-san!” we exclaimed, catching sight of our brother. We then ran to him and hugged his arms as he smiled.
Speaking in Japanese, he told us “I am glad to see you, but please behave yourselves. You two need to work on your manners.” Turning to Alma, he bowed and said, “Thank you for having me, Lady Pendreigh.”
James rose to greet him, shaking hands and saying, “I’m James Michael Somerset III.”
“I’m Duncan Daichi Drache. Thank you for taking care of my sisters. They speak highly of you.” replied our brother.
Jarod, who had risen as well, also shook his hand, saying, “I’m Jarod Davis. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
We sighed as our nii-san went stiff.
“I’ve heard of you as well.” he curtly stated.
We blamed our mother. Since Duncan spent most of his time with her, he picked up all sorts of terrible habits. Despite her, he had a good heart. We had hope for him yet.
“You don’t have permission to enter the master’s domain. His vitals indicate that he needs more rest.” warned Mila.
Ai continued running up the stairs with me at her side.
“You have three seconds to comply.” stated Mila. “Preparing to execute.”
We stopped, staring around at the countless firearms that had sprang out from the walls. When were those installed?
“He’s supposed to take us shopping!” insisted Ai.
“I am aware.” replied Mila.
“Then let us through!” I demanded.
“You have been found in breach of contract and can be executed. I’m verifying the master’s wishes as we speak.” she informed us.
:Is this thing serious!?: exclaimed Ai.
Neither of us could believe what was happening. We remembered that we weren’t supposed to be up here without permission, of course, but this was far too extreme for James. We considered using spells to destroy the weapons, but we didn’t feel confident that there weren’t more we couldn’t see. The assassin built this infernal machine, and her reputation as a killer was impeccable.
Suddenly, the weapons returned into the wall. My sister and I stared around cautiously.
“Access granted. Please do not violate your agreement as tenants again in the future. You have been warned.” stated Mila.
I cautiously took a step forward. Nothing more happened, but neither of us could muster our earlier enthusiasm with our hearts still racing. We slowly walked up the stairs and down the hall. When Ai moved to knock, the door swung open, revealing James.
“Sorry, ladies, but I didn’t realize you’d be wanting to go quite this early.” he told us, smiling as if nothing was wrong.
“Why were we almost shot when we came, out of the goodness of our hearts, to wake you?” demanded Ai.
“We didn’t have any trouble when we came up here before.” I insisted.
“As I already explained, you two had permission from the Princess on your previous visit to the master’s room. This time, you didn’t.” replied Mila.
She had mentioned that when we raced to the stairs, but neither of us had asked for permission.
“I didn’t honestly know there were guns in the walls, and I never read your tenant agreements.” admitted James. “Sorry to have caused you two trouble, but you could’ve just told me when you wanted me up last night.”
We turned our heads away from him with a “Hmph.” He obviously wasn’t up for talking last night.
I told my sister :I’m glad he’s doing better now.:
:Me too.: she replied.
He didn’t have any idea how much we had worried about him.
“If you give me a few minutes to shower and dress, I’ll be ready shortly.” commented James.
“Where’s Jarod?” I asked.
“You promised us Jarod too.” insisted my sister.
Before he could reply, I asked “And he didn’t sleep here last night, so is he meeting us?”
“You didn’t lie to us, did you, James?” we inquired together.
“First off, I didn’t promise you Jarod. I had told you that I’id see if he wanted to tag along. I’ll give him a call and see if he’s ready after I finish freshening up.” claimed James.
:He looks nervous.: I stated.
:He’ll deliver.: replied Ai.
:I know, but do you think Jarod will be ready in time?: I asked.
:We’ll make him ready.: Ai assured me.
Nii-san was coming. Jarod needed to look his best. I sat on James’ bed as Ai paced for the both of us. Good impressions weren’t Jarod’s forte, and we could easily imagine how he would be dressed. I smiled as Ai imagined giving Jarod a new haircut, but we couldn’t really picture anything looking better on him.
James seemed to be taking his time, and we didn’t feel comfortable snooping around the room with Mila watching. We still didn’t understand how the others seemed perfectly fine with constant observation. Even Lady Pendreigh seemed fine with Mila, and she never would put us under constant surveillance.
:We can’t be certain.: stated Ai with a frown.
:True.: I admitted.
We had learned that underestimating the lengths to which Lady Pendreigh would go was always wreckless.
“Is he finished yet?” asked Ai.
“Obviously not.” stated Mila.
“You’re watching him, aren’t you.” I suggested.
“Jealous?” asked Mila.
“What!? Of course not.” Ai insisted.
“We’re not perverts like you.” I added.
“The Princess will be most amused by your point of view. She created me to serve the master’s every need.”
The emphasis she placed on “every” gave us chills. James stepped back into the room, so we rushed to his sides and grabbed his arms.
“He likes us better, and we’re taking him away!” we insisted.
“Oh? Are you going to try stealing him away on foot? I’ll catch you, evil twins. Besides, the master obviously prefers my company.” claimed Mila.
“Girls, please make some attempt to get along.” demanded James. “I really don’t want dragged into an argument, especially over something like this. I would never even attempt to choose a favorite when all of you have admirable merits and can, when you’re not arguing, be truly spectacular company.”
My sister and I both released him and turned our backs to him, annoyed that he’d put Mila on the same level as us. We both resisted the urge to throw something at the mirror when we noticed Mila sticking out her tongue at us.
“Really, I’m sorry everyone’s having a rough morning, but we will make the day better.” insisted James.
We grabbed him and started pulling him to the door. Jarod was waiting for us, and we didn’t want to be late. Mila appeared to be following us, her image hopping from mirror-to-mirror as if she were some ghost only visible through the mirrors. Suddenly, she seemed to jump onto James’ back, hugging him from behind. James laughed, but we were not amused.
“This is why we didn’t let that thing into our wing, James. We’re sure she spies on people, and she’s incredibly rude.” stated Ai.
“I really don’t understand how you can sleep with her watching you. Isn’t that creepy?” I asked.
“Master, Alma wants to know why you’re keeping her waiting.” announced Mila, all too cheerfully.
“What? Alma’s coming?” asked James.
:We forgot that Lady Pendreigh decided to join us!: I exclaimed.
“Run!” we exclaimed, pulling James along with us.
James couldn’t keep pace and tripped running down the stairs, but Ai easily caught him and got him moving again. Lady Pendreigh did not look amused, tapping her foot impatiently as we approached.
“Please don’t tell me that you’re already mad at me as well.” blurted James.
”Let me guess. The twins didn’t tell you when we were leaving.” stated Lady Pendreigh as she glared at us.
Realizing that we might hurt James if we kept squeezing him, we released our grip. Then we said, “Sorry, Lady Pendreigh.”, as we curtsied for her.
“Let’s be off then. I assume Jarod’s meeting us near the stores?” she asked.
“Sorry, but I told him that we’d pick him up.” replied James.
“We’re short enough on time as it is. Mila, please tell Jarod to meet us at the park by the shopping district, and have him dress up, since we’ll be dining out.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.
“Gladly, Alma, but could you convince your evil underlings not to violate their tenant agreement? The master was most distressed when I notified him.” claimed Mila.
Lady Pendreigh stopped to look back at James, and we shrank away.
James sighed and said, “Mila woke me up with a very loud alarm while holding the twins at gunpoint. Sorry. I’ll talk with her about it.”
“Please don’t. They violated their agreement, and I wouldn’t want your security to suffer for their sake.” replied Lady Pendreigh.
:I really hate that machine!: exclaimed Ai as she turned away from the mirror.
Mila was sticking out her tongue at us again.
There was nothing we could do about her, not with Lady Pendreigh on her side. We quietly followed into the DB5 and felt even less inclined to speak when we were inside. James’ exhaustion was plainly visible, and we worried over where his mind might be going. The world always seemed gloomier when James was unhappy.
:I wish we could dress that quickly.: commented Mai.
:Agreed.: I replied.
Lady Pendreigh had a knack for changing in the blink of an eye, even to us.
“Well?” she demanded.
“You look wonderful.” we assured her.
“Those jeans fit you perfectly.” I insisted.
“What less would you expect from us?” asked Mai.
“I feel that I might tear them with a wrong move.” argued Lady Pendreigh.
:I doubt she’s ever torn something by accident.: I stated.
:She’s far more likely to burn something.: teased Mai.
We smiled as James walked into the room. Lady Pendreigh surely wouldn’t change again now, not with the way James was looking at her, his eyes wandering over her body.
“What?” she demanded, raising an eyebrow.
“Nothing. I’m just… umm… Are we not having a lesson today?” he mumbled.
:I wish they’d just kiss already.: I complained.
:You know they can’t.: stated Mai.
I felt her frustration, but Lady Pendreigh was far too important to have an easy engagement. Unlike us, she had control over a vast chunk of the world. We had nothing, since our brother would inherit everything.
Mai hurried up to James and took his arm, exclaiming “Of course!”
“Today, we’re going on an adventure!” I told him, taking his other arm.
We were certain James hadn’t even noticed us, but he didn’t jump, much to our disappointment.
“Well, I am glad you two are optimistic about this endeavor, but you better not let your guard down. Don’t expect me to come to your rescue if you get yourselves in a pinch.” claimed Lady Pendreigh.
Mai’s amusement poured through me as she said, :She can be so cute.:
:She’d save us in a heartbeat if anything truly dangerous appeared.: I agreed.
She’d kill us herself before she let someone else take us down.
:Probably find a way to raise us from the dead just to kill us again for pushing her into it.: teased Mai.
“What precisely are we doing?” asked James, looking worried.
“I’ll explain on the way. Come along.” ordered Lady Pendreigh as she walked by us toward the door.
James didn’t even try to move, staring after her.
“Lady Pendreigh sent us to buy her jeans this morning.” I informed him.
“She didn’t bother trying them on until a moment before you arrived.” added Mai.
:If she had, she’d have talked herself out of wearing them.: I laughed.
“You know that I can hear you quite well, don’t you, girls.” flatly stated Lady Pendreigh.
Mai and I agreed not to push her too far. We didn’t really want her to set anything on fire in a fit of embarrassment. We quickly came along as James hurried after her. When we stepped into the limo, Mai spotted an opened bottle of Riesling Scharzhofberger Auslese.
:Isn’t this year supposed to be particularly delicious?: she asked as she grabbed the bottle.
As far as we could remember, we were in for a treat with this one. Even if the wine somehow fell short of our expectations, James’ expression of concern did not. He actually seemed to believe in the danger.
A rich pineapple flavor came to my taste with the first sip. The spices they chose were paired well.
:Apricot too.: commented Mai.
Before our first glasses were even finished, Lady Pendreigh said, “Today, we’ll be going down into the sewers. I expect each of you to maintain a light, keep the sewage off your clothes, create breathable air around yourself, and defend yourself against any attackers. We very well could meet more than I expect with all the twists and turns beneath this city, so don’t stray too far away from me either.”
James still looked worried, which amused us greatly. Lady Pendreigh warning us not to wander off might as well have been a promise of protection.
She continued, saying, “There was a Slayer’s close descendent here when this city started growing rapidly. He took a great interest in its development, designed a number of buildings as well as the waterworks, and personally created hidden passages in everything built from his designs. I fear at least some fault lies with him regarding this city’s extraordinary number of supernatural creatures.”
Several minutes passed in delicious silence as we enjoyed our wine.
“So what are we doing?” asked James.
Lady Pendreigh looked surprised as she turned toward him and said, “I thought that was obvious. We’re hunting down dangerous creatures in the sewers. The type I expect to find this outing is best left as a surprise.”
:James isn’t looking too well.: I commented.
:Probably our fault. This is only his second time.: replied Mai.
Our thoughts unpleasantly went to Regina. We had failed all of them that day.
:We won’t fail again.: we promised one another.
No amount of drink could make us forget. No joke could fill our hearts with a joy capable of drowning out our sorrows. Still we drank and laughed and hoped that we could keep that promise. There were plenty of dangers in the world beyond us, but we would not idly let the monsters of this world win. Despite what our mother thought of us, we knew our duty.
Over an hour later, the car stopped and Lady Pendreigh said, “We’re here. Come along.”
Once out of the car, James walked at her side, towering over her. Despite his skills, he was obviously nervous. He kept walking even after she stopped. Lady Pendreigh pressed a brick in the wall, and the grating sound of old machines could be heard. Then the wall lowered in front of us, sliding into the ground. We followed behind them into the passage, and Lady Pendreigh pulled a lever to close it behind us.
:Do you think she researched this place or stumbled across it while scouring the city?: I asked.
Mai shrugged, but I watched her theories play through her mind as we followed the two through hidden passageways and sewers. James seemed to relax a little as we walked. He did plenty well with his spells, seeming to cast and maintain them with ease.
“Prepare yourselves. Ai and Mai take the lead.” ordered Lady Pendreigh.
We did as she instructed and diligently watched for an attack. She’d save us if we were in danger, but she wasn’t beyond letting us get injured if we were careless.
“Split up here. Each of you take a tunnel.” she ordered.
Just a couple steps down my tunnel, a bestial roar filled the tunnels. I moved my light spell ahead a bit and watched as a humanoid creature with the head of a bull charged me. I was shocked, having thought these creatures were already eradicated, but my sister was already engaged with one.
I grabbed the horns of mine and was impressed by the strength of the beast. I had to use spells to help restrain the creature.
“Turn around, you fool!” exclaimed Lady Pendreigh.
I glanced back to see James being approached by one holding a pipe like a weapon. He’d be fine. Another was coming toward me, so I didn’t have time to really examine the one I held. I guided water to slice their necks, beheading them both. The bodies soon took on an appearance similar to humans but closer to neanderthals.
:I think they’re closer to Homo habilis.: argued Mai.
Mai was easily handling hers as well. She was already on her third. I was still waiting to see if another would come my way. I didn’t wait long. Two more came my way.
:The arms aren’t long enough.: I told her.
“What are these, Alma?” demanded James.
“They’re trying to kill you. Does it matter? I promise they’d eat you if given a chance.” she assured him.
Light flashed through the tunnels as fire briefly filled them. Lady Pendreigh apparently had had enough, so I rushed over to her along with my sister.
“I thought these creatures were long extinct.” stated Mai.
I winked at her and said, “Looks like we were wrong.”
“How can you be so happy to see they’re alive when you were eagerly slaughtering them?” asked James. He seemed disturbed for some reason.
“That’s enough for today. Let’s be off.” stated Lady Pendreigh before taking the lead.
As she walked, she said, “They aren’t human, James. Given a chance, they’ll devour every human they can as well as any other meat they can get. Yes, they can take a human-like form, but they’re not as evolved as the werewolves or werelions you faced. Their minds are more similar to a beast’s than a man’s. My family protects humanity, not the creatures that prey on it. What would you have done if I wasn’t there to kill for you? Would you have dodged around until you were too worn out to fight? These creatures don’t tire as easily as you do. They would have killed you.”
He didn’t reply. Even from behind him, Mai and I could tell he was disturbed. We didn’t know anything we could say to calm him, so we stayed silent. When we arrived back at the limo, the silence continued. James’ anxiety was practically palpable, enough to put us on edge as well. What would we do if he shut down for another month? What would Lady Pendreigh do? Was the death of monsters so terrible for him? We remained awake long after arriving home, too worried over what we’d see in the morning. Had we left him scarred again?
: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.