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 177

“James, how do you fare with heights?” I asked, hoping that minor detail wouldn’t get in the way of what I had planned.

“Heights have never bothered me.” he quickly assured me.

“This may seem like an odd request given my condition, but I would like to be touristy and go to the top of the tallest building. Would you take me?” I asked.

“Of course, but, if you don’t mind my asking, why do you want to go up there?” he inquired.

I squeezed his arm a little tighter as I leaned against him. Touching him like this was intoxicating. I desired him. Carnal desires clouded judgement. I had learned the hard way before, and I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to skin James as I had the other. A clear lesson had to be taught that day and a reminder to myself as well. Besides, James had a very well-connected and dangerous ally in Lady Pendreigh. Though I wasn’t opposed to her becoming angry at losing James to me, I didn’t really want her angry at me. Assuming the rumors weren’t greatly exaggerated, Lady Pendreigh was a force of nature when upset. I’d survive her revenge with ease, but I could take some serious losses depending on who and what else was caught up in the inferno she’d create.

Realizing he was still waiting for a response, I told him “I’m curious what I’ll be able to hear and smell from up there, what the wind will feel like whipping against us.”

“Oh. Is that all?” he asked.

James needed more than such a flimsy reason. I wanted him to know the truth, despite how personal this was to me. My voice came out in a whisper as I said, “I may have heard of such a thing in an old movie and wanted to experience it.”

He nodded, and I relaxed against his arm, thankful that he accepted that reason. There were others as well, but none so personal to me.

When we entered the building, the security nodded, recognizing me. Their boss owed me a favor, and this was something too small to even start paying me back.

James started moving to the elevator, but I pulled on his arm, getting him to stop.

“Would you mind taking the stairs with me?” I asked.

“W-what? You do realize how tall this building is, don’t you? There are over two thousand steps.” he replied.

“Yes, of course, and I want to climb them together.” I insisted.

He acquiesced, and we started ascending together as I kept a firm grip on his arm. I couldn’t risk James fatiguing and falling, not that I really believed he would. He seemed to be in great shape.

“Don’t feel down. The stairs are far more fun, giving you a sense of accomplishment.” I teased. “Imagine the places these stairs could be leading me. Unlike you, I can’t see what’s ahead, so I can picture the grandest of things being just at the top. You’re stuck in the reality of what you see. Ignoring the sound and smell, I could see us climbing on secret stairs to the top of a mountain or boarding a spacecraft parked on a roof. You could be taking me to your secret condo for a late night rendezvous.”

He didn’t blush, but he didn’t seem to be thinking too much on my suggestion with how he looked at me.

“Or maybe we’re lost together, desperately trying to find a way out from the maze below. The city’s layout really is maze-like from what I’ve heard.” I confided, curious if he had ever noticed.

I continued offering possibilities to James for some time as we climbed, but he remained very noncommittal. Was he lost in his own imagination and not sharing or simply too fatigued to be engaged in conversation? I wasn’t certain. I considered telling him of how I was counting the steps, but I didn’t want him to know that I agonized over reaching the top. Was he interested in me or not?

Whatever the case, I felt him tense for a moment when Aengus came into view. The way his muscles relaxed and his stance shifted, I wondered if he was preparing for a fight.

“There you go, miss. Need anything else before I head off?” asked Aengus as he offered us each a water bottle.

“No. Thank you, Aengus.” I told him.

He nodded and left the staircase.

“Aengus is such a sweetheart once you get to know him.” I assured James. “We had a disagreement a while back, but I managed to bring him around. Now he works for me doing odd jobs.”

James didn’t take up the conversation there either, so I continued telling him stories while slowly getting small tidbits from him. Perhaps taking the stairs wasn’t the best of plans, but for over forty minutes, I was able to hold onto him.

The strong wind was felt the moment the door opened, and I used the excuse to hug myself against him as I wondered what James would do if he saw me jump. The shock when he found me perfectly well at the bottom would be tremendous, but I couldn’t afford risking the exposure. There might be a camera still running in the area that I had missed, and there was no way to account for some tourist taking pictures at the bottom of the building.

“Take me by the edge, James.” I ordered.

He did, slowly guiding me over and then protectively keeping his hand on my shoulder as I leaned against the wall.

“I’m not honestly certain we’re supposed to be here.” stated James.

No, the building’s roof was not open for just anyone, but I had made arrangements. I told James “Don’t worry. I know the company’s president, which is why the door was unlocked.”

James nodded, forgetting again that I couldn’t see.

“Did you know some birds are born blind, James?” I asked him.

“No. I can’t say that I ever considered it.” he admitted.

“My niñera raised me, really, since my parents wanted nothing to do with me, feeling I was defective.” I explained to him. I didn’t speak of how much I missed her still. “She was a hispanic nanny that my parents only hired because she was willing to work for the least out of those who interviewed. She was a fan of old movies and told me about Slepaya ptitsa, a Russian film about a boy who wanted to help a blind bird. My niñera taught me not to let others restrain me with their assumptions about what I could do, to seek the skies if that’s what I wanted. I know better than to try flying a plane, but I wanted to come here and breathe the same air as the birds with a boy who helped me reach this height today. Help me to see, James. What’s out there?”

I turned toward him, wanting to see his reaction. He seemed to acknowledge the importance of the story for me with his expression. He seemed to be considering how to respond.

There was an air of grandeur to his voice as he said, “A great kingdom stretches out before us with endless buildings extending into the horizon. Were you to address those below, they would never even know you were speaking, so great is the distance between us. The great carriages rushing about appear as multi-colored toys scurrying around by their own volition.”

I smiled even more as I told him “So even you can admit that, when staring at the big picture, the individuals disappear?”

“I can’t say I’m experienced at planning anything grand, but I hope I’d manage to help all I could if I were to plan something big.” he admitted.

“That man whom we spoke of earlier could very well be attempting to fight a great evil we couldn’t even notice from down there, and in turn he can’t be expected to notice each one of us with his eyes glued on the greater good.” I explained. Then I went on to speak of Marvelous Max might well be saving the world, a greater goal than any of the small losses taken along the way.

James looked thoughtful as he listened, but he always argued small points as if he didn’t want to admit that letting a few people die was perfectly acceptable when saving millions. Couldn’t he see that even a thousand deaths for a secure future was well worth the cost? If we needed to ritually sacrifice a million virgins as pagans of old, would that not be worth a better future for humanity?

I feared that my points fell on deaf ears as we descended together in the elevator, but I was still glad that James was with me. He could surely come about given some time to think. Perhaps he was caught up wondering how many lives Lady Pendreigh sacrificed for her goals. I didn’t know the grand tally myself, but I couldn’t doubt it was high.

I tried numerous more times as we visited other attractions throughout the city, and James’ arguments seemed to diminish. I wasn’t precisely pleased with the silence that often replaced them, but I had hope that he was thinking things through.

“Would you be able to extend our time together a bit longer?” I asked. Then I quickly assured him “Not for free, of course, but I will quite happily buy a bit more of your time if you can spare it.”

“With a guest at home, I can hardly keep myself out and still consider myself a decent host.” he replied. “Please forgive me for any disappointment, but I will see you again tomorrow at your auction.”

I watched as his limousine took him away and wondered if tomorrow would bring good news. There was still hope.

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 176

James spent some time answering my questions about how his business got started, but I couldn’t say I was really satisfied with the answers, despite being more than satisfied with him. Most people would have been bragging about such success, but James was perfectly humble, acting is if being in charge of the business was just his own good fortune rather than the reason for the business’ success.

When he seemed to lose steam on the subject, I commented “I really find the idea of your business fascinating. I wouldn’t have guessed such a business could sprout up out of nowhere and get success so quickly.”

“I never thought my business would prosper quickly either, but I do enjoy helping old friends and meeting new ones. Plus, I get the diversity in work that I craved.” he replied with a shrug.

I found myself smiling as I said, “You’re just so charming, James. Is there anyone who doesn’t want to see you again after meeting you?”

“Thank you, but I’m really just another guy who’s had good fortune of late.” he insisted.

“Is meeting me part of that fortune?” I teased.

He paused long enough to stare at me for a second before saying, “I assure you that this is far from my worst date.

I realized I had started pursing my lips and quickly stopped. I didn’t want to make him nervous, even if he wasn’t as complementary as I had hoped. Neither was Camila if I were to be honest, so James might well be the perfect impersonation of a best friend.

“Do you ever worry about needing bodyguards?” I teased. “Given how much you and some of your clients are worth, someone might attempt a kidnapping eventually.”

Well, I was partially teasing. Kidnapping James was tempting, very tempting. I’d much prefer him to come willingly, but I could take him. At least, I could take him if Lady Pendreigh weren’t around. She was far too dangerous to face head-to-head. Though she couldn’t do any lasting injury to me, I was certain she’d destroy my machine and physically restrain me before I could react. I needed time to plan.

James had shrugged nervously and now said, “I never really considered it. I do provide my employees with defensive training, having had a considerable amount myself. Besides, a decent kidnapper would probably plan for bodyguards if I was seen with some regularly.”

I smiled and told him “Then the decent kidnapper would attempt to plan for a competent combatant, which is more difficult without knowing what sort of training regimen you use. Would you protect me if someone attempted to kidnap us today?”

“Of course.” he replied with a nod. “I can’t standby as someone hurts my client, after all.”

“Don’t you mean your date?” I pouted, teasing him.

“Yes, of course. My apologies. Why the sudden interest in kidnapping?” he asked.

“Sorry.” I laughed. “I suppose that might seem strange to you. I heard mention that the crime rate in this city was considerably high, so I was reading about recent events.”

“Oh? I didn’t realize the crime rate was that high.” he admitted.

I shook my head slightly as I said, “Oh come now. You were recently quoted in an article for having been at some sort of robbery.”

He didn’t respond, looking thoughtful.

“Apparently, you witnessed some man in a giant robot crashing through a wall.” I prodded, hoping he’d at least tell the story. What did he think of my alter ego?

“Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was a man, but there was some sort of mechanized suit. What sort of person would blow up a wall without knowing who was on the other side? If I had been just a little farther ahead, I would have surely died.” he insisted.

“I’m actually somewhat familiar with a few ways the alleged criminal might have checked for people through the wall. That must have still been quite the ordeal for you.” I admitted. Why was he complaining when he was perfectly fine?

“Yes. It really was. Would you believe some sort of caped crusader attacked the criminal?” he asked.

“Several witnesses claimed as much, but I can’t see how anyone would’ve survived being hit by a machine that can easily break through brick walls. The journalist who wrote the article didn’t seem to buy that either.” I informed him.

James smiled slightly as he said, “Having been there, I can confirm it. I was certain the hero was dead when she was hit, but she kept fighting till the criminal flew off.”

I needed to clarify things with him, so I said, “I’m not even certain the one in the suit should be called a criminal. According to my sources, the man stole weapon plans before they could be sold on the black market. Isn’t someone who risks arrest for the greater good supposed to be a hero?”

James seemed surprised by the notion. “So the police know what was stolen? I hadn’t heard of this.” he admitted.

I shouldn’t have mentioned that to him. This was bad. I couldn’t afford to be so smitten with anyone to risk telling too much, yet I wanted him to believe in me. I considered a few different ways I might turn things about before saying, “I didn’t get that information from any official source, but I am well connected.”

James rubbed his chin as he said, “Oh, so you don’t know if that criminal might be using the supposed weapon plans for something even more nefarious.”

Criminal. The term was beneath me. I was far more than some mere criminal. I was fighting to save the world from threats most people couldn’t even imagine. I wanted to tell him everything and make him understand, but I needed to be careful. James seemed too set in his belief that Marvelous Max was the bad guy here.

“I was just meaning we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the man’s motives. He could be fighting a battle most people know nothing about.” I informed him.

He seemed to consider my words before saying, “While we’re not making assumptions, we shouldn’t be set on the person’s gender either. There’s no telling who is behind a destructive machine. Maybe aliens even.”

I laughed and said, “Aliens, James? Really? I suppose that technology does seem pretty impressive, but I’d believe in this restaurant’s alien origin first, considering it is the Intergalactic House of Awesome Sauce.”

He seemed more relaxed for a moment, but jumped when our hostess returned to retrieve the dishes.

“I hope you’re ready for dessert!” she exclaimed. “You two are going to love this.”

“Evanna, how do you feel about the idea of this place being created by aliens?” asked James.

Shrugging, she said, “I wouldn’t rule it out. The universe is a big place. You wouldn’t believe my delivery range if I told you.”

She was obviously teasing, barely containing a smile. She failed entirely when James laughed.

“Man, I was doing good up until you laughed.” she claimed.

James looked at me for a moment being turning back to Evanna and asking “So what’s for dessert?”

Evanna lifted tall domes to reveal crystal goblets filled with sparkling gems of various colors. “Enjoy!” she exclaimed before pushing away the cart she had filled with our used dishware.

“So what is it?” I asked, pretending not to know.

“Well, I have no idea to be honest. There are these goblets with tall spoons to the right. The goblets and spoons appear to be made of some sort of crystal while the contents looks to be multi-hued, tiny gems.” he replied.

I grinned as he spoke, allowing my excitement to show. I didn’t even wait for him to finish speaking, so long had I gone without these exquisite delights. Catching how James watched me, I explained “I’ve heard of this, though the restaurant doesn’t give it a name. If heaven were a taste, this would be it.”

James seemed lost in the taste the moment he tried the dessert. I felt the same. My senses seemed incredibly sharp as ecstasy suffused me. I could hear the conversations throughout the enormous room with ease. The feeling of the light breeze piercing my clothing to tickle my skin was intense enough to make me shiver but pleasant enough to make me sigh in comfort. My clothes themselves seemed both softer and rougher at different parts. I was so aware of everything, and then the dessert was gone, leaving my senses to return to normal. Was the experience as delightful for James as it was for me?

Best Friend For Hire Reprise, Entry 175

“I’m really glad you agreed to participate in my charity auction, James. We’re going to help so many children this way. I actually had a hand in the new hospital’s design, though Lady Pendreigh used her sway over the Pendreigh Group to make a few alterations. They were improvements in a way to be perfectly honest, but I don’t really care for Lady Pendreigh at all. She’s so… stuffy.” I explained.

“What sort of improvements?” he asked, finally taking the bait on a line of conversation.

How deep did Lady Pendreigh have her hooks in him? I wanted to save him from her.

“For example, I had a grand entryway designed which I felt would lift people’s spirits as they entered. Hospitals are so dreary. I failed to consider how some of the sculptures would affect traffic flow, and Lady Pendreigh added a sterilization system to the fountain that will work with the ventilation to clean the air while spreading an airborne sanitizer. For all her stuffiness, she really is brilliant. The design was very elegant.” I admitted.

If he was particularly invested in her, I couldn’t speak too negatively of her without putting him on guard. I found myself wondering if ever I had wanted someone to join my cause so much before.

“I can’t say I’ve actually seen any of her designs myself. She’s always working, and I hate to bother her.” he replied.

I shrugged and said, “Oh, I’m not surprised. She had her fingers in countless pies throughout Europe, and her influence here is growing rapidly. To be frank, I don’t feel spending time with her is safe.”

I carefully watched him to gauge his reaction. Hopefully, I hadn’t said too much.

“She’s not so bad.” he argued.

I resisted the urge to sigh and forced myself to laugh instead. “If you believe that, you really don’t know her well. What’s one good thing about her?’

He paused to think for a moment before saying, “Well, her desire to see things done right will help that hospital.”

Shaking my head I asserted “No-no. You can’t turn her obsessive need for control into a good thing. Can you think of any positive qualities she possesses?”

I watched him struggling to come up with something. A seed of doubt was successfully planted. Hopefully, the seed would flourish.

“Sorry, but your time’s up. We’ve arrived.” I informed him.

“How did you..?” he started to ask.

“The smell, James. This parking lot always smells fresher than most of the city.” I replied.

I wasn’t even lying. The change in smell was distinctive to this place, and I only looked to verify afterward.

James stepped out of the limo and offered his hand to me, so I accepted it and followed after him.

“Pardon my asking, but do you have partial vision?” he asked.

He was more observant than I had thought. I needed to be more careful.

“Oh, no. I’ve been completely blind since birth.” I explained. No one could know that I overcame my condition through technology of my own design. Not yet at least.

He seemed to accept my admission at face value, casually taking me into the restaurant. This part always baffled me. We stepped across the threshold, and I found myself in an impossible room. The inside was quite obviously larger than the outside and appeared to be constructed of smooth crystal of the highest clarity. Rugged patches of crystal stretched beneath us, never reaching the forested ground far below. The dimly lit forest was embraced between mountainous peaks to our right and a large moon off to the left. The moon was quite obviously not our own, making this structure and its environs seem to be on another world.

I changed the mode on my glasses to gather as much information as possible while we were here. If I could unravel the technology causing this illusion, I would easily be able to implement it for all manner of uses.

“How is it, James? What is the room like?” I asked, wanting to hear his take on it.

His voice was barely a whisper as he said, “The room is transparent, and we’re surrounded by a moonlit valley so beautiful that I lack words to describe it.”

Yes, this view was incredible, but I felt he could do better at describing it. Perhaps he wasn’t so observant after all. Before I could pursue the matter, a girl yelled to him.

“James! How’s it going?” as a curly-haired brunette with bright blue eyes.

She was shorter than me and quite pretty. Her curls seemed far less disorderly than mine, probably due to thinner hair. What was she to James if not an employee as her dress suggested?

“Evanna, right? I thought you were a driver.” he commented.

She rolled her eyes and said, “I am, but Carl insisted I fill in for a moment between shifts. Can’t argue with the boss. if you follow me, your table is just over here.” She showed us to a table before enthusiastically telling us “I’ll bring your food in just a sec!”

I reached for his hand purposely missing and feeling along the table before clutching it. “Details, James.” I told him. “I feel like there is a soft breeze in here.”

For just a moment, I thought he was put off by something, but then he said, “There is a great, crystal dome above us suspended by archways around the giant circle of a room. Each archway appears to be completely open, allowing the night air to reach us. The moon looks different to me somehow, as if it’s not our moon but that of another world. It’s absolutely enormous and tinged with blue. The forest beneath us is hard to make out, but it’s quite expansive, stretching into the distance.”

I squeezed his hand encouragingly and asked him to continue.

“I didn’t notice at first, but the crystal appears to be glowing faintly. Even looking away from the moon toward the mountains, I can make out the outline of the floating structure by the dim glow.” he explained. Then he paused for a moment, looking around before saying, “I… I have no idea where our server went from here. She seems to have vanished entirely.”

I knew he could be more observant. There were numerous times I had tried figuring out how the servers seemed to slip away, but I never was able to follow them. Something always pulled my attention away before they slipped out of the illusion. Magic might well be involved in this place, but Camila never could detect any. If there were spells in place, they were beyond her. I would suspect the Slayers, but they weren’t allowed in here for some reason. Perhaps the proprietor was a match for them. Carl was an enigma.

Smiling at James, I told him “I’m not surprised. I’m guessing some of the patrons here aren’t even real. I think this room utilizes some very advanced technology to create realistic screens on the walls. Then there must be some sort of environmental control for the temperature and breeze. You’d be amazed at some of the theories I’ve read.”

He seemed to be considering my words as he looked around, missing Evanna’s approach from behind him. I had heard her footsteps quite distinctly in this room.

“Sorry. I didn’t see you return.” stated James, having jumped when a bowl was set in front of him.

Laughing, she assured him “I’m the one that should be apologizing. I’m supposed to be making people feel comfortable. Playing host really isn’t my thing. Who wouldn’t get distracted in a room like this.”

“Evanna, is it? Do you happen to know how this illusion is created?” I asked.

Laughing again, she said, “Sorry, but I’m not allowed to discuss any of the inner workings, even with a friend of James. Please enjoy your meal.”

She knew!? I needed to put this restaurant under surveillance and have my men grab her from the parking lot the moment she got off. She should have known better than to flirt with my date.

A scent distracted me, and I exclaimed “Moqueca!” in delight.

“Pardon?” asked James.

“The dish, silly. I had this when I was in Brazil a few months back. You’re in for a treat if you’ve never tried it.” I assured him.

The host left us, and I began my normal routine of “finding” everything’s location as my niñera had showed me when I was young. I couldn’t leave James wondering again if I might not be blind. Once finished, I quickly took a bite. The taste was incredible, even better than I remembered. The secrets of this restaurant’s recipes would be worth a fortune by themselves.

“This is even better than I remembered. How do you like yours?” I asked.

“Oh. It’s great! I’ve never had anything quite like this, but the flavor really is wonderful.” he insisted.

“I’m glad you think so too. My chef can’t quite get the flavor right, so I told him to give up. I’d fire him, but he really does quite well on most things.” she explained.

James seemed to earnestly enjoy meal. Though he ate slowly, savoring each bite, a smile continually came to his lips. I enjoyed watching him far more than I would have thought possible and found myself wishing to keep him around constantly. Perhaps one day.

Best Friend For Hire reprise, Entry 174

“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.

Oops.

“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?

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.