“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.
I watched James all the way home after my fight with that mechanized monster. He seemed fine. I was worried that he might be injured, but I didn’t even see a scratch. I had gotten to him in time. I was even more certain when he immediately joined the others in Ancient Tribes of Earth after entering the mansion. I joined them too, since the game was fun.
My character still seemed slow, but I was certain she’d get faster. Everyone in the world grew as they spent time there. If my character possessed my superpowers, I could become an unstoppable savior for them as well. The world was amazingly detailed. I still had trouble believing Aaliyah made this. She was so tiny and cute, not someone I’d expect to be this clever. If she were to turn to villainy, would I even suspect her?
James surprised me, being the first to leave. I considered following him, but I wanted to be the first one to get to Jarod when he returned home. In my short time here, I learned that Jarod was usually in the garage building things. If anyone here could make gizmos for me, he certainly could. Maybe I could have a laser that shot from my wrist to cut through that metal armor or a shock device that could fry circuits!
“Mila, you’ll tell me when Jarod arrives, won’t you?” I asked
“Gladly.” she assured me.
I needed something. I could punch really hard, but I didn’t even dent that suit. I had no chance of lifting it either, so I couldn’t tip it over. I could try wrapping a cable or something around the suit, but I didn’t think I could really do that fast enough. A net might work, but it’d have to be really strong.
I continued brainstorming as I played, but I didn’t come up with anything that I thought would work. I had defeated hundreds of villains in my life, perhaps over a thousand, but I never fought something like this. I didn’t have any way to keep the guy from just flying away.
Text appeared on my screen, saying, “He’s here.”
“Thank you! Please log me out.” I told her.
“What’s the rush?” inquired Alma.
“I need to speak to Jarod about something.” I told her, hoping she wouldn’t stop me.
Alma made me feel weak, vulnerable. She probably could’ve tore that suit apart with her bare hands, but she probably would have just watched. Luckily, she didn’t bother getting up now.
I ran to the entrance by the garage. Jarod had a fancy car, so he’d be parking and coming in this way. I waited. He wasn’t here. Did he go to work on something? I started to pace.
“Mila…” I started.
The door opened, and Jarod looked surprised to see me. I quickly told him everything about my fight, about that mechanical suit.
He nodded and asked “Where’s James?”
“In his office.” replied Mila.
“C-can we go up there?” I asked. Mila had warned me that the upper floors were out of bounds, being James’ personal living quarters. I had been here so little time, but this place felt like home to me. I didn’t want to be banished.
“Permission granted.” she told me.
Jarod started to jog. Maybe he was running? I held back to keep pace with him. We were going to the third floor! I had only been here once, briefly to sign paperwork after being hired. The office was like something out of a movie.
I stared in shock for a moment. The office was completely different. James appeared to be sitting on a beach, typing away on air while staring at nothing.
James had noticed us while I was staring around. What did he say? I missed it. Oh! There were words floating behind James. Mila was transcribing for me.
“Yeah. Portentia caught me just after I entered the house and mentioned you two were there. i can’t believe Maxine’s finished her suit already. I’m getting close, but mine isn’t ready yet. I wish I had a clue what she was using to power the thing. I’ve made some progress recreating the storage used in the designs I have, but I still haven’t figured out precisely what materials were used. I’m going to give up and ask Aaliyah for help now. If she’ll create a power source similar to what’s inside Mila for me, I’ll have my suit running in no time.” stated Jarod.
“You’re building a suit too? Are you planning on helping me bring criminals to justice?” I asked. Maxine… I should have known. I went onto say, “I really could use a sidekick, but I don’t think we should get a kid involved.”
“I’m just wanting her help to finish my suit, not to fight. You’ve played Ancient Tribes of Earth on the system Aaliyah designed. She’s brilliant.” he explained.
I shrugged. I couldn’t deny the girl was crazy smart.
“You already guessed that she made your suit, right? It’s no different, really.” insisted James.
He did have a point, and I loved my suit. I really loved my suit.
“Wait a moment. Did you say Maxine finished her suit a bit ago?” asked James.
He missed that!?
“Huh?” asked Jarod, looking confused. “Yeah. Maxine.”
“Was there a second robbery? The one we were at had some guy in a suit. He had at least a foot on me.” insisted James.
Well, the suit did look like a guy.
Shaking his head, Jarod said, “No, that was Maxine. Didn’t you notice the double ‘M’ monogram on the chest?”
I nodded. I had told him about it.
“That stands for ‘Marvelous Max’. She pretends to be a guy while out causing trouble. This isn’t a coincidence, James. I have a folder of evidence showing that Maxine is always in the same city that Marvelous Max hits.” insisted Jarod.
Evidence… was he a part-time investigator? What? How did he know about Marvelous Max if he didn’t know she finished the suit? I needed to get more out of him.
“Why not give the evidence to the police and let them arrest her then?” asked James.
Oh. I guess they could just arrest her.
“Yeah, sure. I give them a bunch of circumstantial evidence, they get a warrant, and then they have a lawsuit against them after finding nothing. Maxine’s smart. She’s really smart. There’s no way she’ll have any incriminating evidence somewhere they could find. If not for her ego, I’d have never suspected she was in that suit. The name, Marvelous Max, pops up too much in relation to that suit for it not to be her.” explained Jarod.
Maybe he had just been piecing things together? I frowned, imagining what would happen to a human facing that suit. There might not have been nearby witnesses before. I needed to get rid of that thing before the police could move in on her.
I pretty much jumped when Aaliyah walked by me. The tiny girl had glasses on and a large, pink backpack. Well, the backpack wasn’t that large, it just looked large on her. What was she doing here? I wanted to scoop her up, hug her, and explain that we had important matters to discuss.
Oops. I missed something. Let’s see…
“…a large number of very valuable, historical artifacts were discovered in a vault on this property after your acquisition of it. Many are decorating the house, but most are still in storage. They’ve all been authenticated and catalogued for insurance purposes. Pretty cool, huh?” asked Aaliyah.
I wished I had started reading from the beginning, but the text only appeared for a short time before vanishing to keep up with the conversation.
“Mother will really want to see this vault if she finds out. Care to show us before we let Maxine auction anything off?” asked James.
“What? Why would Maxine be auctioning something?” I demanded. We had just been discussing her criminal activities!
Jarod’s hand waved in front of my face, so I looked at him. He quickly explained what I had missed as well as repeating the last of it.
“You can’t seriously be thinking of helping her!” I protested.
Aaliyah had a stern expression when she looked up at me and said, “The charity is for a children’s hospital, not for Maxine’s pockets. I’ll be donating an American Longrifle I acquired a while back, and Alma’s donating some old clothes. The evil twins haven’t decided yet.”
“How can we trust anything she’s doing? She’s a criminal! This could be a setup to fund her criminal pastimes!” I insisted.
“I really wouldn’t trust her with my money or belongings. She might just be gathering things for a heist.” added Jarod.
James didn’t look convinced as he stood and followed Aaliyah out of the room. Jarod and I came along, continuing our attempts to make him see reason, but I didn’t think we were getting anywhere.
At the bottom of the stairs, a wall moved, revealing a passage. I stopped my arguing as I received a flashlight. Darkness awaited ahead. I followed the others through countless twists and turns. When I thought we were lost deep in the earth, Aaliyah would fiddle with a wall and reveal another passage. I was usually good at finding my way around, but I didn’t feel confident about escaping from here. If for no other reason, I didn’t know how to open the walls. The thick stone looked quite formidable. Would I be able to break through eventually?
After numerous hidden doors, we came to a large opening with a very large, round door. Three combination locks formed a large triangle. Aaliyah stretched to reach two of the locks, twisting them round and round. James had to lift her for the third. A large hole appeared in the center of the triangle. Aaliyah wiggled free from James, pulled off her backpack, and started pulling odd bits of metal from it. She assembled them together like some sort of puzzle, forming a round handle with a twisted thingy coming off from it.
“Yes, boss-man, sir, entering your vault required a quest to attain the key shards.” she announced with a large grin.
I could see Jarod laughing, but I was still confused. Who would have a vault like this? James didn’t seem to realize this was here, so how did the little girl know?
James lifted the unwieldy thing and twisted it into the hole. He seemed to be getting instructions from Aaliyah on what to do, twisting it back and forth more as she instructed. Then Jarod and James swung the enormous door open together.
Bright light streamed out from the room beyond. Stone shelves were laden with all sorts of things. I followed the others inside and wondered at what I was seeing. Most everything in here looked very old. There were numerous vases, clothes from other eras, paintings, carvings, weapons, jewelry, and more… so much more. How wealthy was James? I felt like he’d need me here to keep him safe if dangerous criminals ever found out about the riches here.
“You should come in my lab sometime and see what I’ve been building.” suggested Jarod.
I nodded and said, “I could use some gizmos. I couldn’t even dent that suit.”
Jarod smiled and said, “Well, I might be able to help some. You’d have to be really careful with anything that could penetrate that armor. I imagine she reinforced it similar to what I did.”
“When will you be finished with it? I don’t mind being a guinea pig if you want someone indestructible to test it.” I suggested.
“No idea. I’m having trouble coming up with a safe power source that’ll be strong enough. Current batteries don’t have enough energy density for my purposes.” he explained. Then he turned to Aaliyah and said, “I could really use your help.”
Shaking her head, she said something to him, but I couldn’t see what. His disappointment said enough. I stopped when she suddenly turned around.
“You, on the other hand, could use a weapon. Learn to use a staff, and I’ll give you something special.” she claimed, grinning widely.
I believed her. I grabbed James’ shoulder and begged “Please, teach me.”
“I can teach you the basics, but I’m not really that fantastic. I’ll help you convince Ai and Mai to help after I teach you what I can.” he replied.
I frowned, not liking the idea of learning from those two. I knew they were skilled, having experienced their skill firsthand. I could handle it. I was picturing staves that shot rockets, acted like tasers, and other wonderful things. What type of staff would she design for a superhero? I couldn’t wait to see!
I stared up at James’ enormous mansion. This place felt like home, and the notion struck me as odd. Despite having just left the grandiose hotel, the mansion’s grandeur remained undiminished. Was I really that accustomed to being here already? Multiple houses could fit inside this one with plenty of room to spare. Ai and Mai’s wing alone was easily over twice the size of my parents’ house, and that’s not counting any secret passages I didn’t know about. There probably were some.
I always liked the idea of hidden passages in walls, secret ways to get from room to room, but I never thought I’d actually see as many as I already had. There was a hidden theater, secret storeroom, and rooms with purposes which I could only guess at. The place was amazing… Even the garage was larger underground than on the surface.
Just walking inside, you had to pass two sets of double doors. I could easily imagine James standing on the balcony which overlooked the foyer and greeting us. That wasn’t his style at all, but he would look right there. This was the most incredible home I ever heard about, and my best friend owned it.
The technology inside still amazed me. I followed the others into the ballroom where little Aaliyah was already typing away with her secretary glasses firmly planted on her nose. She didn’t need glasses at all, but they were cute. To think someone so cute designed this tech-heavy room was amazing. There were eight, very large mirrors creating the walls. Each mirror could swing outwards, revealing either a passage or storage. The mirrors also served as giant screens.
I was certain Aaliyah had designed the chairs as well. The eight chairs, designed for luxury as much as gaming, seamlessly hid beneath the floor when the ballroom was to be used for something else. They could be controlled by a digitally displayed system far more advanced than any others I had seen. The speakers built into the chairs had excellent sound quality, but were virtually silent from even a foot away.
Aaliyah was far, far beyond me in so many ways. If she had only designed Ancient Tribes of Earth, I’d still have believed it. The game’s size, customization, and in-depth story were vastly superior to anything else I tried, but the game ran smoothly on every system I had seen, including those of clients with relatively old systems ― A surprising number of our clients played. Had James noticed?
The little girl’s choice not to engage in battle was amusing to me, knowing that her knowledge of combat was superior to my own as well. Every last move we used in the game had been coded by her, but she was also my teacher in real life. She taught me how to move when fighting but also how to think. I knew James didn’t entirely approve of it. He never wanted to hurt anyone, but breaking an arm or leg to end a fight quickly was sometimes for the best. We already lost one friend. I didn’t want to lose anyone else.
“I think I’ll go tell Marco that we’re back.” stated James as he took a step toward the door.
“Oh, master, Marco has known when you would be arriving for days now. The Princess is very organized. I can’t believe that you’d doubt her.” teased Mila through the room’s speakers.
“Must she really call you ‘master’ in that fashion, James? I don’t feel it’s appropriate.” insisted Alma, from her favorite of the room’s chairs.
“Thank you, Mila.” stated James. Then he faced Alma’s reflection and said, “She has a mind of her own, and I’ve found what I say has little bearing on what she does and doesn’t decide to do.”
I half-expected Mila to make some snappy quip, but she apparently didn’t feel the need. Which was harder between designing Mila and Ancient Tribes of Earth? I wasn’t certain. The game was massive and had fully interactive NPCs who would vocally respond to anyone addressing them, but I doubted any of them were actually conscious like Mila. Her mind was impressive to say the least, and her knowledge was as vast as the internet. I couldn’t have made the progress I did in my own designs without her input, at least not as quickly.
I took a seat to play Ancient Tribes of Earth with the others. Even after an entire convention where we had focused on this game, I was ready for more. Only a tiny fraction of the world had actually been explored, and the game was immersive enough to make you feel this was a second life. My friends in the game were every bit as real to me as those around me. I knew their quirks and capabilities in the game. We had talked enough that I knew significant amounts of their out-of-game lives as well. Even if the game somehow grew boring, I couldn’t imagine quitting because I’d miss them.
I was talking about the convention with them, since none of my lieutenant generals were able to make it in person. Something seemed off though, not with them, but… Maxine. Brandon had told me about meeting a cute girl who turned out to be some sort of criminal. She was trying to hack the game, but Brandon said she was blind. She couldn’t be…
“Sorry, guys, but I need to log already.” I told them.
“What? Come on…” complained Lake.
“It’s too early, and you haven’t even been on very long.” whined Jesse.
“I’m going to get some chicken wings.” stated Alec.
Typical Alec. I said, “Mmm… I haven’t had wings for a while. Catch everyone later!”, and logged off. James glanced back looking surprised as I made my way to the door. Partway to the garage, I asked “Mila, you were listening when James met a girl named Maxine, right?”
“Of course. I must always be prepared to help the master.” she replied, making “master” sound flirtatious as ever.
“What was her full name?” I asked.
“Maxine Marveille Montgomery.” she stated.
“Mind digging up everything you can on her?” I requested.
“Oh, I already started digging when the master met her. Want to see what I have or wait until I’ve finished investigating?” she asked.
“Wow. Over a day, and you’re not finished?” I questioned, surprised by the idea that Mila wouldn’t have someone’s whole life story in that time.
“She actually has very impressive security measures guarding her personal servers, and I wasn’t too focused on breaking into them. She was also very thorough in erasing all digital data regarding her parents and brother. I actually had to make some calls for inquiries and am still waiting on responses.” she informed me.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised.” I told her before breaking into a run.
“Is something troubling you?” asked Mila when I entered the garage.
“Have you compared the IP addresses between the Maxine from the convention and the one with whom I’ve been corresponding?” I asked.
“No. For your correspondence, I only went so far as to see that they were rerouted through several machines each time. I never bothered with a full trace, but I do see why you’re concerned. I believe you’re correct as well. The servers I’ve been casually poking are at her primary home address. I had checked the ISPs in the area to see which she used and retrieved her IP address from there. Given the scope of Maxine’s public holdings, she probably has access to numerous servers throughout the world and plenty of processing power to run all sorts of interesting software. Want me to shut her down?” she offered.
The idea was tempting, but I wanted to do a little more research first. Shaking my head, I said, “No, but thank you. She probably doesn’t have the data I’d want networked. Destroying the servers you’ve been ‘poking’ would only get her attention. I’m sure she could replace them easily enough, and I don’t want her calling in favors from her friends in Ai and Mai’s family. Mind opening the attachment on the email Maxine sent earlier today?”
“Here you are. She seemed most impressed with your actuators and sent you schematics for those servos you had discussed.” she replied.
Great. I’ve impressed an evil genius. After looking over the schematics, I started fiddling with my tablet. All of this was the result of a game of sorts Aaliyah had given me with the tablet. Would Aaliyah have helped me so much if she knew I’d inadvertently help a criminal mastermind? Being blind, I didn’t imagine Maxine would be doing much of the actual legwork herself, assuming there was legwork, but there had to be, otherwise she wouldn’t need the suit. Would she actually trust someone else using it? How could she use it if she were blind? Sensors? Even with a good audiofeed, reflexes would be slowed, but I already had a number of ideas for pulling it off. She’s been at this a while, so she surely had refined plenty of ideas.
All thoughts of Maxine left my mind as the next part in the game unlocked. There were detailed schematics of Dr. Conway’s work. His work wasn’t for an exoskeleton though. He had intended to replace bones, even organs, with machinery he had designed. The designs were brilliant, incredibly brilliant, but having them implanted would be dangerous and very painful, assuming you didn’t lose sensation entirely. I became lost for a time, puzzling over how the connections to the brain worked. I needed to study more biology, but I had the resources.
I started listening to Conway’s audio diary while reading. He actually did this procedure several years ago? These measurements though…
“Mila, mind displaying these pieces fitted together as a skeleton?” I asked.
Conway droned on as tears came to my eyes. He didn’t… He couldn’t have… Estimated height of the subject was just under thirty-five inches. What sort of monster would do this to a child? As I listened from the cold floor, Conway described the child and the procedure. He really was a monster. I needed to talk to James. He had to be told.
“Where’s James?” I asked.
“In his bedroom.” somberly stated Mila.
I left the garage, trying to compose myself as the lift carried me up. If anyone was awake, I didn’t want to bother them. I needed to talk with James first. How could a little girl do so very much with her day? She wasn’t human. She should have been. She should have grown. As I made my way up the stairs, I started running. I meant to knock gently, but I was pounding at the door from the start.
James was dressed for bed, staring at me in shock.
“We’ve gotta talk now. This is crazy. This is so, so crazy.” I told him.
He put his finger to his lips and waved for me to step inside. I did. Who would hear us on the third floor? Oh. Alma. She might. I started pacing, but James pulled a chair out, obviously wanting me to sit down. Could I sit still right now? No. I kept pacing. James sat on his bed and stared at me. He looked worried.
I opened my mouth to tell him what I just learned, but I felt like I might cry again. I stopped myself and decided to tell him the lesser bad news first.
“This is some heavy, heavy shit. First off, I screwed up, man. I think I really screwed up.” I admitted.
James raised his hand to get my attention and asked “What happened? Start from the beginning?”
I nodded, took a sec to reorganize my thoughts, and said, “Yeah-yeah. Okay, so Brandon was telling me about this cute girl you two met who went by Maxine. Well, I didn’t think anything of it at first, but as we were playing downstairs, some pieces started clicking together. You remember that tablet I got from Aaliyah for my birthday?”
“Well, there was a sort of game on there. The thing is that the game was actually instructions, walking me through the life’s work of some guy who was trying to make robotic parts to strengthen humans back in the sixties.” I explained.
“Sounds like an impressive guy if he made any progress, but I don’t see what the problem is.” replied James.
What? Oh, right. I needed to explain more. I told him “Just hear me out. To unlock the next part of the instructions, I had to answer questions about the workings of what I had seen so far. Some of that got pretty tough rather fast, since I don’t have the background to understand all of it. Well, I didn’t want to ask Aaliyah, because that seemed like cheating, since I felt she gave me the program to challenge me. I started browsing forums and talking with people about specific aspects of what I read. There was this one girl, Maxine, who was super knowledgeable. She was great to talk with, since she really seemed to understand me. We started talking through direct messages rather than on the forums where the others made stupid comments. No offense intended, but they did. Some of the stuff she said just seemed weird to me, like ‘imagine trying to design a servo blindfolded.’ That’d be crazy, right? Except that putting her comments together with you meeting a blind, intelligent girl named Maxine makes me believe that she did do it blindfolded.”
“Wait. Why are you assuming that the Maxine I met was that intelligent? We hardly talked, really. ‘Maxine’ can’t be that uncommon of a name.” argued James.
I stared at him a moment, trying to tell if he was being serious. He was? Feeling slightly exasperated, I said, “Really, dude? This blind girl’s attempting to hack Ancient Tribes of Earth according to Aaliyah. Then she’s working with part of Alma’s family. We’ve met the twins and Alma so far, and all three are very intelligent. How useful to them could Maxine be if she wasn’t bright?”
James seemed to consider it a moment before nodding and asking “Okay, so how did you goof?”
“She helped me with problems. I helped her with some. If she’s a criminal like Brandon made her sound, I just assisted a criminal in a robotics project. I really doubt she’s going to use whatever she’s working on for world peace.” I explained
“Look, you had no way of knowing that you were helping a possible criminal. You just have to be a bit more careful in the future.” he assured me.
I shook my head, knowing I needed to tell him about Aaliyah. I started by saying, “Yeah, I know. Just bothers me. That’s actually the lesser of what’s bothering me at the moment. As I was trying to figure out what harm she could do, I was reading through that program some more. Then something else clicked for me.” Then I looked him in the eye and said, “I think Aaliyah’s a cyborg.”
A dark cloud passed over James’ face. He looked worried, upset… Not surprised.
“Jarod, don’t say anything until I get a response. Not one word.” he ordered.
I did as I was told, feeling shocked. What was happening? He didn’t question me at all, just got upset. What was with him? Texting now of all things? He seemed to get a reply instantly, and I could see the tension leave his body.
“Dude, what was that about?” I demanded.
An eerie smile came to his face as he said, “You just stumbled across something dangerous to know. You can’t let anyone else find out that Aaliyah’s a cyborg. Ai, Mai, and Alma know as well. If you mention it around them, they’ll have you in a sealed room in a second.”
“You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, feeling really confused now.
The smile was gone in an instant. James looked at me that way he does when he seemed to see straight through me. Then he said, “Aaliyah’s the assassin, Jarod, as in the only assassin. The twins explained to me that if you reveal her secret, whomever you tell dies. You die. Your family dies. Aaliyah apparently doesn’t make exceptions for friends. At least, I think she considers Ai and Mai her friends.”
Was he messing with me? “How could you know she’s the only assassin or an assassin at all for that matter?” I asked.
“I found out after she let me see her kill two people, though I can’t say I actually saw her even move. She told me afterward that she had killed off all other assassins years ago.” he claimed.
He wasn’t bluffing. James was dead serious. Aaliyah killed off every assassin!? I knew she could fight. She had been teaching me to do things I hadn’t thought possible, like breaking an egg inside a glass without touching it. I could actually do that now despite my lack of magic. Stopping a person’s heart would be easy. The speed James had claimed didn’t add up though. The numbers weren’t working in my head. Conway’s voice was playing through my head again. I couldn’t push it out.
“Okay, so I can see how she would be deadly given what was done to her. I don’t understand how she could be that fast though. It’s too much from what I saw.” I insisted. Conway’s description continued replaying as I said, I really feel sorry for her. It had to hurt so, so much. No one should have to go through that, much less a kid.”
“Go through what?” asked James, looking confused.
“The operation, James.” I told him.
He still looked confused.
“‘The subject was brought in with injuries all over her body, internal bleeding, and broken bones throughout both arms and legs. Her skull was fractured. I commenced with the operation, replacing her bones with those of my own design.’” I told him, regurgitating the words in my head. “‘The subject’s remarkable healing ability kept her alive, but her body burned through the anesthetic rapidly. The surgery was a success.’ is a somewhat rough summary of her doctor’s notes on the surgery.”
The poor, poor girl. Knowing Aaliyah was the test subject, I couldn’t keep the image of her crying out from my mind. That little girl should be smiling, always smiling… not tortured.
I forced myself to continue, saying, “She woke up countless times during the surgery, James. Her body healed rapidly, but she was in pain for at least a couple weeks while she recovered. I don’t know what they did to save her, but her body was outgrowing the implants after nearly a year, causing her constant pain. Aaliyah was a military test subject. The descriptions led me to believe it was her. The blonde hair and blue eyes. The dimensions of the implants given would put the test subject at around thirty-five inches tall.”
The tears were coming again. I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t stop thinking about her being forced to go through that operation… There was no way the doctor just happened to have synthetic bones made for her lying around. All those injuries were done to her as an excuse to perform the surgery. The man was a monster!
The door opened and a blur was there and gone faster than I fully registered. Aaliyah was there on my lap, hugging me. She really was fast, incredibly fast. I couldn’t understand her speed.
“I’m so sorry, Aaliyah.” I told her, trying to hold back the tears. I didn’t want her to see me crying. The girl had enough tears of her own.
“Don’t cry, Jarod.” she insisted. “I’m fine now. Honest.”
She handed me something. A phone. My phone. I hadn’t even seen her pull it from my pocket. It was ringing. I answered it and put it to my ear.
“I have telepathy!” she exclaimed through the device without even moving her lips.
I laughed a little and said, “Yeah, I suppose that is like telepathy.” I hugged her again and told her “Still, I’m sorry that you went through that.”
“Just don’t tell, especially not my daddy.” she insisted.
I nodded and said, “I promise.”
I talked with her for a while, trying to make sense of the world. Aaliyah didn’t mind sharing some of her stories as an assassin with me, since some of the contracts were no longer valid. Most of her contracts included a “certain level of discretion”. As we talked, I thought again of how much I had been missing before Emma told us about magic. How much more was I still missing? Emma had only told us about magic as part of Alma’s grand plan. Was there a larger plan at work? I could imagine Aaliyah having one. The tiny girl was too incredible for belief.
I smiled as I looked at myself in the mirror. Callan’s armor suited me well, and I looked forward to James’ opinion, not that he’d probably notice. I knew I didn’t stand a chance with him, not with how he looked at Alma, but I still liked the occasional compliment from someone other than my brother. I frowned, thinking I should probably make sure Brandon figured out his costume, not that there was much to it. He had interrupted my lessons over and over this week to ask my opinion how he looked as a girl. Only my brother would play a female character, decide to dress up as her, and still panic over how he looked.
I smiled again when I turned around and saw Portentia trying to catch herself in the mirror again. Prying her away from it had been tricky. She was beautiful, but I doubted she saw anything but that costume. Even I had to admit she looked like a hero in it, at least more so than she did walking around in a hoodie. When I met her and saw her in that dress she wore for James’ party, I thought Alma might have some competition, but Portentia didn’t even seem to care how she looked most days, it was obvious. I stepped out of her way, but Emma squeezed in front of her.
Emma pulled off her character, Toxi, well, but she always looked cute. I wasn’t into her style, but I couldn’t deny that she pulled it off. Months living together, and I still wasn’t used to the way she’d occasionally look at me. I did enjoy her company. Emma was never against watching movies with me, discussing makeup, or any of the other things I couldn’t do well with the others. I did watch movies with the others, but always “boy movies”. Emma was up for watching things with more depth.
“Onward!” called Aaliyah from by the door. She looked precisely like her character, but that was to be expected when she designed her character to look like her. Resisting the urge to pick her up and hug her was a constant chore, but she never cared when I gave into impulse. I just knew I couldn’t do that to her all the time. Despite her looks, she was twelve. I hated when Brandon would treat me as a little kid at that age when he was only two years older than me.
Following Aaliyah out into the hall, I sighed. My brother looked ready to run.
“You are Brandon.” stated James in a loud whisper.
“This is weird, isn’t it. I should go change. Forget you saw this, okay?” he asked.
“Oh no you don’t, buster!” I yelled at him.
I grabbed him by the arm and said, “You’ve been practicing for days! You can’t just duck out now.”
“So you knew he could do this?” asked James.
“I am his sister, you know. It’s not like a guy can hide this sort of thing. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’d catch him at in high school.” I informed him.
Brandon quickly covered my mouth. In a rush, he said, “Brenna likes to exaggerate. I was just curious one day, and well… things happen. If you could change your shape to some extent, you’d try things too. Besides, you’ve gotta admit I can make one incredible rack!”
I knew that was his hand, but things still felt a little strange with his breasts pressing into my back. He was usually taller and all muscle. I might be able to take him in a fight right now. He couldn’t be that used to his current body.
I shoved his hand away and told him “Yeah-yeah. Convince yourself of whatever you like, but I’m just being honest. At any rate, you’re not chickening out now. You’re the one who wanted to play as a girl.”
I could totally take him right now, till he cheated. I knew he’d cheat if I tried.
“So Aaliyah’s forcing you to dress as your character?” asked James in disbelief.
“Of course not, boss-man, sir. I gave him two different costumes, so he could choose.” explained Aaliyah.
I rolled my eyes as Emma started checking out Brandon. No matter how he looked, she had to know that was still my doofus brother’s brain in there.
Giggling, she asked “So umm… are you able to change all your parts?”
James quickly covered Brandon’s mouth with his hand and said, “Some things are best left unknown.”
Emma giggled harder at how obviously embarrassed James was by the question. He was too cute.
When James released him, Brandon loudly whispered “I’ll tell you later!”
Great. My brother might try hitting on Emma as a girl now.
“We gotta get moving, people! It’s makeup time! Then we’ve gotta get your wigs on, and some of you need new ears!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she pulled out a large box from her backpack.
I found myself watching carefully as Aaliyah did makeup. The girl knew tricks I never had seen before. She was good. She might as well have been a professional makeup artist with how dramatically she could change a person’s face.
For me, she just held up a mirror and told me what to adjust. I often wore makeup despite being able to change my looks without. Going without made me nervous, because there was always a chance of something going wrong. A girl whose makeup never runs gets attention I didn’t want, but I wasn’t going to argue with Aaliyah. I didn’t doubt James would listen if Aaliyah thought I needed to be sacked, and I loved my job.
When Aaliyah was finished with us all, we looked incredible, as if all of us had stepped directly out of the game and into the room. The girl was absolutely amazing. We all followed her out to the elevator.
Speaking to my brother, James asked “Wait a sec. What are we calling you during the convention?”
Brandon pulled up his badge and showed it to James.
“‘Elf Hottie’. I should have known.” stated James.
When we reached the ground floor, Alma and the twins were waiting outside of the elevator.
James blurted “Who’s watching our stuff?”
Alma patted his arm as she walked by him without saying a word, followed by the twins.
The rest of us went back out and started playing Ancient Tribes of Earth on the computers there. Aaliyah told us we needed to “test” them, and none of us had anything better to do. She was the boss this weekend, paying for everything. I still wondered at times how rich that little girl was already. She had to be loaded.
I couldn’t concentrate. Aaliyah had us doing vocal warmups as we played, and I couldn’t really pay attention to the game’s chat while singing. James, on the other hand, was perfect as ever.
“How do you do it?” I asked aloud.
“Do what?” he replied.
“Multitask so well. You didn’t seem to miss a note even while replying to people in the game.” I insisted.
“I dunno. It’s just something I’m decent at for the most part. I honestly am not always paying as much attention as I should to some things. Maybe that gives me more time for the others.” he suggested.
I laughed and said, “No, you’re definitely not always paying attention.” At least he knew it.
Alma, Ai, and Mai were already on their way back, coming up behind James.
“Well?” asked Alma.
James spun around, and even from behind him I could tell she had his attention. She was every inch Eseld now. Seconds of silence ticked away as he stared.
“Most people would be kind enough to at least give a compliment. Is something off?” she asked.
I couldn’t tell if she was actually worried or not. Reading Alma was impossible.
One of the twins patted her shoulder and said, “The outfit is perfect, Lady Pendreigh.”
Then the other said, “James is just horrible at giving compliments.”
“Well, I think you all look beautiful. If I didn’t know better, I’d think Ai and Mai were dressed as twins!” exclaimed Jarod.
The second twin made a face at Jarod as the other rushed him.
“Just don’t ruin your costumes!” exclaimed Aaliyah as the two fought.
This was going to be one crazy weekend.