– I –
It was convenient to find ourselves in an area of the building replete with cafés, restaurants, and so forth.
We had five floors worth of shops from which to choose a suitable venue, and Sierra took her merry time deciding on her choice.
That meant wandering around for a while past the various food outlets.
With a veiled sullen look, I followed behind Sierra and Maria, and was kept company by Tabitha who was looking about with disinterest.
“What are you playing at?” I asked her, keeping my voice low yet certain she could hear me.
“Aren’t you interested in knowing where this will lead?”
“Even if I am, what’s it to you?”
Tabitha glanced at me sidelong. “Do you believe everything is a conspiracy?”
I’d been watching her in the corner of my eye, but now I turned my head and faced her. “Why wouldn’t I believe that?”
“Then isn’t it better to make friends who are unrelated to your circumstances? In other words, friends less likely to be involved in a conspiracy.”
Again, I thought of Angela and Felicia, and again I felt my chest tighten.
Turning away from Tabitha, I replied curtly, “I told you before, I don’t need friends.”
I was somewhat relieved when Tabitha opted to accept my words with silence because I had nothing more to say to her. At the very least, I had run out of words and didn’t feel like verbally sparring with her. But she had set my thoughts in motion, and despite asserting that I would be fine on my own, I sensed the lie beneath my words.
Truthfully, a lonely school life made for an unpleasant school life.
I’d been fortunate as Ronin Kassius by having Mat around, and Felicia and Angela too, before their treachery. But as Isabel, I was certain I wouldn’t depend on the latter two for company, and I had no idea when Mat would be returning school. I only had Erina’s words to go by, and since I couldn’t bring myself to trust her ever again, I had no way of knowing what condition he was in. All I could do was hope for the best, although that meant accepting that Erina had spoken the truth about Mat being alive and recovering. That brought me back to the problem of trusting her, making any attempt to deal with her feel as though I was experiencing a paradox.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Tabitha whispered conspiratorially with her customary disinterested visage.
I scowled at her. “How about an arm and a leg?”
She waved her left arm then skipped on her left leg. “You mean these two?”
“No, your real ones.”
“Hmm. The price is rather steep.”
“Think of it as the going rate when factoring inflation and bad karma.”
“Can you imagine anyone naming their child Karma?”
My scowl was kicked aside by a perplexed frown. “Where the Hell did that come from?”
“From out of left field.” She tapped her left temple. “So, can you?”
“Can I what?”
“Imagine naming your child Karma.”
“I wouldn’t even dream of it. Wait—I don’t even know if I can have children. Wait—why am I even thinking about children!”
Tabitha looked bored yet pensive. “If you tell him bad Karma, it’ll sound like Bad Karma.” She gestured with a finger at an imaginary child. “Bad Karma. Good Karma. Bad Karma. Karma play nice. Karma don’t flip the girls’ skirts.”
“You are strange.”
Tabitha’s eye widened. “Oh. I have a better one. How about calling your cat Help?”
I was gaping at her by now so I quietly closed my mouth.
Tabitha droned on. “Imagine calling your cat down from a tree. Help. Help. Help.” She paused and looked at me. “What would the neighbors think?”
“They’d probably call for help.”
“Precisely.” She raised a finger. “And if they found the cat wandering around, they might read the name on its necklace and think the cat was calling for help, or sent to find help.”
“Then wouldn’t it be better to call a dog Help?”
Tabitha nodded in agreement. “Have you seen that ancient cartoon of the white St. Bernard that works as a mountain rescue dog?”
“No…can’t say that I have….”
“Well, it has this little whisky keg around its neck. So when it sights someone in distress, it rushes out into the snow and delivers a glass of whisky to the victim.”
“Because the alcohol kickstarts them back to life.”
I realized I was frowning at the logic behind that. “Would that really work?”
“Alcohol keeps the cold away.”
I noticed I was cocking my head in thought.
Seriously, would that really work?
However, what I asked was, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Are dogs more reliable than cats?” Tabitha asked in return.
“I don’t know,” I replied honestly.
“So which of the two is better to name Help?”
“None of the above.”
“Which of the two can you depend on for help?”
I bit my lower lip. “The dog?”
“Do you know that cats think of us as big mother cats?”
“You see, cats have never been domesticated. Cats are creatures of convenience. They give the illusion of agreeing with us when we tell ‘don’t do that’, but in truth, they are following the path of least resistance.”
“By not putting up a resistance?”
“That’s right. So they give the illusion of obedience but only while it’s convenient for them.”
“Are you implying cats aren’t loyal to their owners?”
“These aren’t my words, but I have read that cats see us us roommates rather than owners. We are big cats that happen to share the living space with them.”
I paused in thought before asking, “Why are we talking about cats?”
Tabitha was quiet for a moment before remarking, “Perhaps you should make like a cat.”
“Follow the path of least resistance,” she added. “Make like a cat and bend in the wind.”
“That’s make like a reed and bend in the wind.”
“Are you saying cats don’t bend in the wind?”
“Of course not. They’d either roll into a ball, or lie flat on the ground.”
“Have you ever visited a cat café?”
“No. I don’t have a cat, so why would I?”
“You should get a cat. Learn from your cat.”
I stopped walking. “I don’t want a cat.”
Tabitha stopped beside me. “Why not?”
“Have you met Akane Straus?”
“Yes. No. Maybe.” Tabitha’s eyes rolled slowly as she searched her memories. “Why do you ask?”
“Her Gun Princess avatar has cat ears.”
“And a tail?”
“No. Oddly, no.” I made a mental note to ask Straus about the lack of a tail, then remembered she’d already explained it was inconvenient to have one. Shaking my head quickly, I pressed on. “Forget about the tail. The point is that having a cat would remind me of her, and I do not get along with her.”
“So she would spoil your relationship with your cat.”
“Exactly.” I turned away and resumed walking, having fallen behind Sierra and Maria. Hurrying to catch up, I noticed they’d stopped to window shop at a boutique that was preparing to open early for business. Perhaps because the girls were rivetted to the window, the shop owner opened up early for them. I watched Sierra and Maria disappear inside.
“What about breakfast?” I wondered to myself.
“She’s an odd one,” Tabitha said.
I stopped and faced her. “Who? Sierra?”
“No. Straus. Her medical file is kept under lock and key. Other than the basic diagnostic of her condition, we know little about the treatments she’s endured to halt her muscular degeneration.”
“Oh?” I don’t know why but I was feeling defensive in the face of Tabitha’s prying. “So what?”
Standing beside me, Tabitha answered, “Our suspicion is that she is Prototype One.”
I swallowed involuntarily as I remembered what Akane Straus had said to me on the penthouse balcony.
You are my hope.
I swallowed again and then hardened my voice when I asked, “Whose suspicion? Yours or Cardinal’s?”
Tabitha stood still and silently regarded the clothes boutique with a flat gaze before turning toward me. I suspected she wasn’t going to answer me, and I was right.
“Shall we join them?” she inquired with a lazy wave in the direction of the boutique.
I gave the boutique a faintly sour look but a moment later a young man’s voice addressed us from behind.
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
There was no mistaking it as a warning. The blunt tone with which it was delivered immediately set me on edge, and I hastily spun around to see a tall teenage boy with sandy blonde hair striding smoothly toward us. Dressed in the Telos Academy summer uniform for boys, he wore a white necktie marking him as a first-year high schooler. From the way his uniform hung on his body, and the strong arms that stretched out from his shirt sleeves, it was easy to see he had an athletic body. If anything, I’d call it a swimmer’s build.
Who is this guy? I thought in a hurry, shifting to a defensive stance on reflex before I realized what I was doing.
Then I was startled to notice Tabitha’s bored expression had become one of guarded confusion as she eyed the newcomer who came to a stop a few feet away from us.
With arms akimbo, the young man swept his gaze over me from head to toes, then did the same to Tabitha.
“Taura Hexaria,” he said, breaking the silence with no discernible hesitation, his voice as blunt as before.
“I prefer, Tabitha Hexen,” she countered.
“Also known as The Witch of Mischief,” the young man added. “The one who wrecked the Walpurgis Festival.”
Tabitha closed her mouth and regarded him with added caution for a while before asking, “You play?”
“When I have free time,” he replied.
Play what, I asked myself.
“Oh, what class?” Tabitha inquired.
“Archer. Type Odysseus.”
“Hmm. I play as—”
“Witch. Type Hecate. I know. And your sister plays as a Witch, Type Medea.”
Tabitha pressed her lips into a thin line and for the first time I saw a cold light in her eyes. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Someone who’d rather you didn’t interfere with a member of the Sanreal Family.” The sandy haired boy crossed his arms and stood with feet shoulder width apart. “You can go back to Cardinal…empty handed.”
I stared hard at Tabitha. “What is he talking about?”
Tabitha ignored me, her attention focused on the high school boy staring at her with steely calm. “The Sanreal Family sent you?”
“On this occasion, I represent their interests.”
“And so you rudely butted in,” she remarked dryly with a faint snort, then turned toward me. “Cardinal has a proposition for you. Do you want to know what it is?”
I noticed the boy shift his stance as though on the verge of dashing forward, but he held himself back when he saw me throw a stony look his way.
I didn’t know who he was, but his claim that he was acting on the Sanreal Family’s behalf didn’t endear him to me. Neither did the fact he hadn’t properly introduced himself. Thus, I gave Tabitha a nod while holding him back with nothing more than my stern visage.
“Let’s hear it.”
“Join Cardinal’s team in the Gun Princess Royale.”
I frowned immediately and turned to stare at her. “Why would I do that?”
“Cardinal has interests and you could serve them well.”
“As a Gun Princess.”
“Correct. Winning affords you more than just money and prestige. Winning can earn you privileges within the scope of the Empire.”
“I can do the same with the Sanreal Family, can’t I?”
“If you compete for us, Cardinal can smooth things over between the Empress and House Novis.”
The sandy haired boy unfolded his arms and took a step closer. “House Novis doesn’t need your help.”
Tabitha eyed him askance. “House Novis would do well to enlist our support. You’re a stone’s throw from losing your prized Fabricator. Right now, House Novis is weighing the benefits of keeping it as opposed to keeping Mirai. This has compromised Erina Kassius’s research, putting her in a tight situation.”
“They won’t hand her over to the Empress. She’s too valuable.”
“Are you so certain?” Tabitha questioned. “A Fabricator isn’t the only thing they stand to lose.”
Although I didn’t enjoy being spoken of like a commodity to be traded or bartered with, I was gaining a picture of where I stood with the Empress and House Novis.
“And if I agree?” I interceded, mildly surprised at how calm I sounded despite being annoyed.
Tabitha shifted her attention onto me. “Cardinal has a few cards it can play with the Empress. We can assuage her displeasure at House Novis possessing its own Fabricator.”
“Is it really that important?” I asked her.
“Fabricators are prized Remnant technology.” Tabitha smiled thinly. “Trust me. It is.”
The teenage boy folded his arms again. “That Fabricator was gifted to House Novis by the Emperor before his passing. Kateopia has no say over it. And acting like she didn’t know about it is a lie. She knew it was given to House Novis by her father.”
“What the Empire giveth, the Empire taketh,” Tabitha quipped. “Cardinal can help you keep it…amongst other things.”
“I didn’t come here to discuss the Fabricator. It’s not my problem,” he declared. “Keeping your claws off Mirai is my problem.”
I couldn’t help glowering at him as my annoyance spiked. “How about you keep your claws off me, and tell me who you are. Start with a name.”
His gaze shifted onto me for a heartbeat before he ignored me and spoke to Tabitha. “House Novis doesn’t need Cardinal meddling in its business or troubles. And it doesn’t need you filling her head with ideas. That’s all there is to it.”
I inhaled loudly as I clenched my jaw and continued glaring at the teenage boy. “Tabitha, I don’t have to give you an answer right away, do I?”
“Give us an answer by Friday. That’s the deadline.”
“Why?” I asked, throwing her a puzzled look.
“Because Friday is the cutoff date for all final entrants into the Gun Princess Royale Minor League,” she explained.
The unknown boy stepped closer to me. “You’re a member of Team Novis—”
“I haven’t agreed to be a member of anything,” I heatedly snapped.
“You told Erina you would compete as Mirai. You gave her your word,” the fair-haired youth retorted. “Or do you make empty promises as and when it suits you?”
I drew my lips back, fully intending to give him a piece of my mind, but then I saw the hole in his argument.
“I said I would compete as Mirai. I never said I would represent House Novis or the Sanreals.”
I watched him grow rigid before anger spread across his face. “And what about your identity as Isabel val Sanreal?”
I shrugged. “I can still play the part.”
Tabitha tilted her head slightly as she regarded me. “Then are you ready to give me your answer now?”
I faced her again. “Let me ask you something. The Empress isn’t one to keep her promises. I get the impression she doesn’t care much for her father’s legacy of goodwill either. And she rewrites the rules when they don’t suit her. Sounds like a despot. So what makes you think Cardinal has any leeway with her?” I turned toward her and planted my hands on my hips. “From what I’ve gathered, the only reason I’m here and not in her hands is because my sister threatened her with my life and for some reason I’m valuable to her as well as to House Novis.”
“If Cardinal says it can, then it can,” Tabitha replied easily.
“Why? Does Cardinal have the key to her closet full of skeletons?”
“Does it matter what Cardinal has over her?”
“And what does Cardinal hope to get out of me? Planning to study me like a lab rat?”
“They want you to win the Gun Princess Royale.”
Tabitha didn’t answer me right away. In fact, she was silent for a long while during which she glanced at the unknown teenage boy several times.
Eventually, she exhaled loudly as she bowed her head.
“There is a prophecy—”
“Oh, come on!” I yelled. Flourishing my hands and arms into the air, I staggered in a full circle before facing the girl again. “Seriously? A prophecy? Are you shitting me?”
Tabitha was strangely silent, and it abruptly made me uneasy. Adding to said unease was the fact that the teenage boy was staring apprehensively at Tabitha.
Slowly I lowered my arms down to my flanks and assumed a cautious posture.
“Seriously?” I asked. “You’re not shitting me…?”
“No. I made that up.”
I lunged forward and grabbed her by the throat. “I am going to kill you!”
As I throttled the mechanical girl, Tabitha spoke with an eerie calm unbefitting a girl being strangled. “The winning Princess who is crowned Gun Empress is granted one wish.”
I stopped shaking the girl back and forth. “What wish?”
“Ask of the Empress one wish that is within her reason and power to grant. That is the rule of the Gun Princess Royale—a rule set in stone. Even Kateopia cannot violate it.”
I eased my grip on her cold neck. “But she gets to decide whether or not to grant it.”
“If within her power—her authority—she must grant it. If she fails to do so, the Gun Princess Royale falls apart.”
“Oh yeah? What then? Darkness falls and it rains cats and dogs?”
“More likely missiles and bullets.”
I felt a chill run through me. Hoping to hide it, I frowned at the girl. “What if I win and then ask to be Empress?”
Tabitha shook her head. “The wish has to be reasonable.”
I wet my lips slowly before asking, “Am I the only one who gets a wish?”
“No. You earn a wish for your sponsor as well. For the House you represent.”
My hands fell away from Tabitha’s neck as I understood why House Novis wanted me to win.
“A pardon from the Empress,” I whispered.
“What makes them so sure they’ll get it?” I stepped back from Tabitha and turned my head to look at the teenage boy angrily staring at the mechanical girl. “Even if by some miracle I win the Gun Princess Royale—what guarantee do they have—?”
“None,” he stated in a hard tone. “But that’s not my problem. Neither is you winning the Gun Princess Royale. My problem is keeping you with House Novis.”
Taking a deep breath, I strode up to him and met his gaze from inches away. Because he was an inch or so taller than I, that meant looking up at him. But only a little.
“Who are you?”
His gaze searched my face for a short while before he softly asked, “Would it explain if I said you’re my hope?”
It was like a cold wind blew through me the moment the words left his lips and registered in my mind.
The sandy haired youth observed me quietly for a second, then spared a glance at Tabitha standing nearby. “Would it also help,” he asked me, “if I told you she’s not being honest with you?”
I retreated a step from the tall boy. “What?”
“Hey, what do we have here?” Sierra’s surprised voice pierced my thoughts yet failed to draw my attention away from the teenage boy. “Who might you be?” she asked, sounding oddly amused. “I should tell you, that’s not Mercy Haddaway.”
Without warning, the teenage boy reached out and took a hold of my left hand. “Yeah, I know,” he stated brusquely then hurriedly tugged me along behind him as he turned and fled with me in tow.
“Hey—!” Sierra cried out behind us. “What are you doing? Why are you running away?”
He didn’t reply, instead picking up the pace as he ran with me toward a stairwell.
“What about breakfast?” Sierra’s voice grew faint as we left her behind.
For a moment, part of me harbored the belief that Sierra would run after us, but with Maria around the latter was likely to dissuade her from giving chase. Yet I still threw a look over my right shoulder as the boy and I arrived at the stairwell.
But it wasn’t Sierra’s eyes that I met – it was Tabitha’s, and the knowing smile on her face wasn’t lost on me.
You can run but you can’t hide.
Or maybe it was more along the lines of:
You can’t run from me forever.
As I thought this, I felt something perceptible – tangible – come down between Tabitha and I, leaving me with a bitter feeling in my heart as I was spirited away.
Speaking of running, I guess you’re wondering why I didn’t protest and pull free of the teenage boy’s hand.
The truth was that everything had happened so suddenly, and while bothered by the shift in my relationship with Tabitha, I was also trying to wrap my mind around his unexpected revelation.
Thus I found myself in a state of confusion, running behind him down the stairs with my hand firmly in his grip.
Then another distracting thought served to muddle me up some more.
Large. His hand is large. Why are boys’ hands so large?
Although I may have thought that, I knew that thinking of him in male pronouns was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself from falling into the trap.
It’s not cold, but it’s not warm like hers.
Another marked difference between his hand and Sierra’s.
Another marked difference between his hand and Ronin’s.
There was nothing manly about me…was there….
Lost in troubled thoughts, we continued down the stairwell for a long while. But when I glimpsed a plaque with “Level 10” imprinted on it, my thoughts suddenly lined up nice and neatly behind one important question.
“Hey, where are we going?” I asked him loudly.
“To where we can talk in private,” he threw back over a shoulder.
“I don’t think so.” At the next landing, I dug my heels in and jerked my hand out of his grip. “This is far enough!”
The teenage boy had been pulled to a harsh stop when I yanked my hand free. After catching his balance, he watched me with a complicated expression before stepping up to me.
“We need to talk,” he stated in a low, grim voice complemented by a serious light in his eyes.
I placed my hands behind my back as I looked up at him. “Good. Let’s do that. You can start by giving me a name. What do I call you? I can’t very well call you, Cat Princess, now can I? You don’t look like a Princess anymore.”
His face grew blank and unreadable, but a short while later he huffed to himself, and then broke into a confused smile as he gave himself a quick look. “You have a point…,” he muttered softly.
“Well? Do you have a name?” I questioned him bluntly. But after folding my arms under my breasts, I added with a smirk, “Or should I give you a name?”
Surprisingly, he glanced at my boobs before leaning toward me and replying with a smirk of his own. “Actually, I do have a name. So don’t bother.”
“Then let’s hear it.”
“Severin,” he announced.
“My name. Call me, Severin.” He grinned as he favored me with an informal bow. “Severin Straus, at your service.”
I pressed my lips together, feeling a rush of anger flow through me.
Ronin Kassius had swung punches before but they rarely if ever landed.
Mirai on the other hand was gifted with abnormally high hand-to-eye co-ordination.
The right cross I delivered to the boy’s jaw knocked him backwards, down the stairs, and out of sight.
After wincing at the intense pain that briefly incapacitated my right hand before being mended by Mirai’s preternatural healing ability, I walked to the edge of the stairs and glared down at Severin Straus sprawled on the mid-level landing.
He met my glare as he sat up. “What the Hell was that for?”
With both hands clenched at my sides, I shouted angrily, “Two reasons!”
I held up a finger.
“One! You were rude to Sierra!”
I held up a second finger.
“And two! You tricked me—you bitch!”
“Huh?” Slowly rising to his feet, Straus looked visibly taken aback.
As I was on a roll, I added for good measure, “And you’re a pervert!”
At this Straus bristled visibly for a beat. “I’m not a pervert. This is a disguise. Okay? It’s just a disguise to get around.”
“I can’t believe this.” I shook my head slowly and repeated, “I can’t believe this.”
“What’s so hard to believe?”
“That you’re a girl using a male avatar!” I stomped a foot. “You’re like those guys that play MMO’s as sexy female characters.”
Straus flinched, and suddenly I recalled what he – I mean she – had told Tabitha.
Pointing a finger accusingly at him – I mean her – I grated out, “You’re the opposite side of the coin. You’re a girl playing as a male character.”
“I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing,” Straus protested.
“Oh yeah?” I aimed lower with my finger. “Is that thing anatomically correct?”
Surprisingly, Straus started to blush. “Aren’t you ashamed for asking?”
“Don’t answer a question with a question. Well? Is it?”
“I have a constitutional right to remain silent.”
“Okay—okay! It’s anatomically correct.”
“Will you stop calling me that?” He started climbing the stairs back up to me.
I retreated from him. “Stay away from me.”
“Stop acting like an abused girlfriend,” he warned me. “And keep your voice down. People will get the wrong idea.”
“I’m saying it for your own good,” I retorted and waved a fist at him.
Straus arrived at the landing, inhaled deeply, then allowed his shoulders to slump. “Would you calm down and listen to me?”
“I have been listening to you.”
“Great. Then I don’t need to say it again, do I?”
“That we need to talk.”
Noticing a handful of office ladies glancing at us as they walked by on the balcony beyond the stairwell landing, Straus grew quiet and I too waited for them to move on. I did catch their conversation and their comment about young couples not knowing their place, but otherwise they ignored us.
Feeling a tad relieved, I crossed my arms under my bosom and stared sourly at Straus. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“Have you calmed down?” he asked.
“I’m calm enough to hear you out.”
“Good.” He looked exasperated as he planted his hands on his hips.
I chose not to mention it, but even though I knew it was a woman operating that body, it was surprising to see the avatar behave just like a teenage boy, from its mannerisms all the way down to the way it walked.
Damn creepy. Damn pervert. Just how much practice has she had getting around in that body?
Straus raked his fingers through his long sandy hair. “Are you hungry?”
“Huh?” I was jolted out of my observations. “Why are you asking?”
“Because I heard that girl yell out ‘what about breakfast’ as we were running away.”
“You mean Sierra.”
“Yeah, Sierra. Well? Are you hungry?”
I was indeed hungry, so I replied with a curt nod and grumbled. “Are you buying?”
“I’m offering, aren’t I?” He pointed at himself. “Besides, I’m the guy here so I should be paying.”
I snorted under my breath. “In case you missed the news flash, it’s the age of gender equality.”
“Good chivalry never dies young.”
“What’s with the twisted quotes?”
“Fine. Then you buy breakfast.”
I lowered my arms swiftly down to my sides. “Hey, what happened to chivalry just now?”
Straus clenched his jaw, a gesture that unsettled me because I knew his body wasn’t human. It reminded me of Tabitha’s body, and so I briefly pondered if it was made along the same lines, that is, a mechanical body designed with stealth and infiltration in mind.
Venting a loud breath, Straus shook his head then turned his back to me. Walking back to the stairs, he descended them in silence until stopping halfway to the mid-level landing. Looking up at me over a shoulder, he asked, “What are you waiting for? Did you twist an ankle? Want me to carry you down?”
“You want to get punched again?” I warned as I strode toward him, my surly look back on my face.
“I pity the guy that falls for you,” Straus muttered as he – that is she – resumed walking down the stairs.
“And I pity the girl that falls for you—you fraud.”
He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. “Better to live a lie than to not live at all.”
I can’t explain why hearing him twist the famous quote angered me so much, but before I’d realized it I’d caught up to Straus and then kicked him in the middle of the back, launching him down the stairs face first.
“Stop twisting other people’s words,” I snapped as I watched him roll to a stop at the next landing. But as he slowly picked himself up and regained his bearings, I couldn’t help but add, “And it’s better to have loved and lost than to have not loved at all. Get it right.”
It wasn’t until later that I learnt I hadn’t quoted the quote correctly myself, but that’s a moot point for now.
Once again shoving his hands into his trouser pockets, the mechanical avatar calling itself Severin Straus rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck, then shot me a heated look from the landing below me.
It was truly unnerving to see a machine glare at me so well.
“Like I said before…I pity the guy that falls for you.”
It's late. Sorry. I just can't keep to a schedule. Plus, it needed a lot of work before it was kosher.
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