Was I at risk of losing everything?
Had I gained nothing after winning my fight against the Gun Queen?
Just what had I achieved? What had I earned for myself?
As my questioning thoughts slowly drifted through my mind, the empty, hollow feeling in my chest returned, making it hard to breathe as though my lungs were being distended by the vacuum within me.
I swallowed hard a few times, and tried to regain control of my breathing.
I understood that the emptiness was born from the oppressive feeling of being trapped, walled in from all sides, with no way out of my situation.
I realized then that to some degree I was already boxed.
No matter the choices that I made, I was a captive of the Sanreals and House Novis.
While I was of value to them because of the Angel Fibers, I was also their gladiatrix and slave, and there was no freedom in that. And while there was no going back to my previous existence, going forward would only be on their terms. Thus, my life was not mine to live because my existence belonged to them.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I gripped the edge of the table and fought down a new sensation – the urge to retch.
“Isabel? Isabel. Isabel--stop!”
A loud crack startled me and I opened my eyes to see Straus leaning over the table, grabbing onto my arms. But the damage was done. The long edge of the table had been snapped by the pressure my fingers had applied to it. It hadn’t broken away, but there was a lengthy crack in its surface that would be impossible to miss.
Straus’s gaze worked its way from the table to my hands, up my arms, and eventually onto my face.
Through my hazy consciousness, I thought I glimpsed a flicker of fear in his eyes – quite extraordinary since he wasn’t a boy of flesh and blood – before his lips set into a thin angry line. Then he grabbed a pancake from the small pile the waitress had delivered as part of the breakfast order, and unceremoniously shoved it into my mouth.
“Eat,” he commanded, before exiting the booth.
Circling around to my side, he grabbed me by an arm, then picked up the plate with the pancakes on them before dragging me out of the booth.
With my mind in a foggy state, I failed to put up a struggle, and was thereby pulled toward the exit of the café by Straus.
In the waiting area, Straus instructed me gruffly, “Wait here”, then hurried off to pay for breakfast.
My mind may have been addled and fuzzy, but my body recognized its need for food.
Thus, I distractedly munched on the pancake sticking out of my mouth.
Swallowing it down seconds later, I watched Straus pay for breakfast and then hurry back to me with a paper bag containing our pancake order and a few other bits, though I would need to look in the bag to know what they were.
“Come on,” Straus said as he passed me by, dropping the bag into my hands.
With a little food working its way down toward my stomach, my emotions a tad more settled, and my mind a little clearer, I followed him out of the café onto the sidewalk.
It seemed that nothing had changed during the time we’d spent inside the café.
The city sidewalk was as busy as ever as people hurried to work.
I didn’t need a wristwatch to tell the time. Mirai’s wetware informed me with a thought pulse that it was now 9:15 am, and since most companies were in business by 9:00 am, I figured a great many people were either going to be late, or they had more flexible schedules than I
knew of. But all of this was of little consequence to me as I merged with the flowing sidewalk traffic and then followed Straus down the district block.
All the while, my mind was slowly picking up the pace as it chugged away at various trains of thought. But it wasn’t until we reached an intersection and waited for the light to change in our favor, that I reached out and yanked Straus by the arm.
Startled and wary, Straus regarded me with caution in his eyes.
“What if I took her offer?” I asked loud enough to be heard above the surrounding din of vehicular traffic and people. Seeing the faint confusion on his face, I added, “What if I accepted Tabitha’s offer to fight for Cardinal?”
The confusion in his eyes turned to restrained alarm. “That would be a mistake.”
“Because she lied to you.”
“About Cardinal.” Straus shook his head. “There is no division of the Battle Commission by that name.”
“There’s no Cardinal—?”
“There is no Cardinal division. But there is a House Alus Cardinal.”
I released his arm, and my arm fell away limply. “What?”
“Taura Hexaria Erz Cardinal. That’s her name. That’s who she is.”
I stared at him with disbelief on my face, but deep down I wasn’t surprised to learn that she had lied to me like so many people thus far.
Was it so unexpected to learn that one more liar had entered the fray?
Indeed, it wasn’t, yet nonetheless I couldn’t help feeling acutely disappointed in her.
Perhaps my thoughts were written on my face, because after a moment or two, Straus gave me a sympathetic look. “I’ll tell you more later. For now, let’s keep moving.”
I swallowed, pushing down my disillusioned, slightly bitter feelings, and hesitantly asked, “Wh—Where are we going?”
Straus pressed his lips tightly together before waving a hand eastward. “You know the gardens by the harbor waterfront?”
I nodded. “Of course, I do.”
“Well, I thought you could do with some fresh air.”
I stared at him, my mind still rocking after hearing of Tabitha’s deceit, and wondered what his angle was. However, before I could come to any conclusion or guesses, the traffic light changed, and once again we were swept across a wide street by a torrent of pedestrians rushing to work.
Eventually, after a fifteen-minute walk where I trailed behind Straus while weaving between people, and clutching my bag of pancakes tightly to my chest, I noticed the sidewalk traffic thin out dramatically the farther we travelled east toward the harbor, taking with it the oppressive feeling
of being walled in from all sides. A short while later we escaped from the shadows of Ar Telica’s towering megascrapers and left the frantic commuters behind when we crossed a multi-lane avenue into a strip of sparse parkland running north-to-south before the harbor.
It was only then that I relaxed my grip on my pancakes.
There was another avenue to cross before we arrived at the narrow parkland that paralleled much of the harbor foreshore.
I followed Straus to a picnic area encircled by a sparse tree line.
A few people wandered through the parkland, some walking their dogs, others using the wide paved path between the park and sea wall as a jogging track.
Straus headed for an empty table with bench seats a lthat was a little way away from the other deserted tables in the clearing.
“Wait here,” he instructed, then hurried off at a jog to a row of vending machines about a hundred feet away.
I sat down at the bench table, and threw a glare at his back as I opened up my bag of pancakes, annoyed at being ordered around.
I failed to quash my feelings, but I did manage to lid them as I looked inside the bag and found about a dozen pancakes, a handful of paper serviettes, and a couple of sealed plastic cupcake containers filled with jam. After emptying the bag of its contents, I flattened it and used it as a placemat. Then I opened one of the jam containers, and poured a little of the rich strawberry sauce onto a pancake. Rolling it up carefully, I then speared it into my open mouth, and ate it in a hurry.
However, I took my time with the next pancake.
By then, Straus had returned with an armload of soda cans that he quickly placed before me on the table top.
“I didn’t know what you preferred,” he admitted, “so I bought the popular brands.”
I swept my gaze over them, then chose a soda can with lively green and white livery. “Thanks…,” I grumbled as I popped it open.
Straus rested his arms on the tabletop after sitting down opposite me at the picnic table.
I devoured a third pancake, then washed it down with a mouthful of soda before slamming the can onto the table.
I threw a dark glare at Straus who watched me with a keenness that was making me uncomfortable as well as irritated.
“Tell me about Cardinal,” I demanded in a low grumble. “Tell me the truth.”
Straus gathered himself by straightening for a moment then leaning forward, once again resting his weight on his elbows.
“House Alus Cardinal fought in the war in support of Kateopia. After the war, and after House Novis’ fall from grace, they gained Kateopia’s ear and have since been her closest allies. When Kateopia wanted to exile House Novis for their genocidal act of wiping out House Patraeon, it was House Cardinal who swayed her decision.”
I arched an eyebrow at Straus. “So they’re allies of House Novis?”
He snorted curtly. “Hardly.” After shaking his head, he said, “No, they’re rivals and not the friendly sort.” He paused for a second with an uncertain expression before continuing. “After the war, Taura and her sister Alexia, competed in the Gun Princess Royales held in their universe and ours. They won the respective championships, earning House Cardinal a generous amount of prestige as well as two wishes granted by the Empress. They rose from the noble rank of Catun to Alus in one fell swoop. Ever since then, they’ve been holding onto that rank by supporting the Empress both publicly and privately.”
I slowly swallowed down my fifth pancake, and noticed the image of Ghost standing idly behind Straus, nodding slowly as though confirming what Straus had just told me.
“You know a lot about them,” I pointed out coldly.
“I know what I’ve been told,” he replied easily, shrugging off the frigid look I was giving him.
“So why did she do it?”
He looked bemused for a moment. “Why did she make you that offer?”
Straus shrugged a shoulder. “You would have discovered the truth sooner or later. I guess she was testing your commitment to House Novis.”
“As if I ever had a choice.”
Straus made an odd expression with his lips as he looked away while pondering my remark. “I don’t know about that. It’s one thing for the Empress to steal you away from House Novis, but it’s another for her to tempt you away through House Cardinal. If you left of your own will, I have no idea what would happen to you.” He shrugged both shoulders this time. “I don’t know what House Novis would do if you betrayed them.”
“Betray? Are you serious?”
Straus gave me a dry look. “You know what I mean.”
Yes, I did. But nonetheless, I didn’t appreciate him phrasing the situation that way.
I cleared my throat with another mouthful of soda from the aluminum can. Putting it back down on the table, I favored a glare upon Straus. “It would have been nice if I’d known all this before I ran into her again.”
Straus folded his arms on the tabletop. “You’ve been a little hard to talk to you—what with you running away by jumping off balconies.”
I started to grimace in response but stopped myself quickly.
He had a point. I wasn’t exactly being accommodating, but they were to blame.
“Maybe if you’d treated me better I wouldn’t have had a reason to run away. You ever consider that?” I asked him brusquely.
Straus pressed his lips together tightly. “Are you angry about the way she shouted at you?”
“Oh, I’m definitely not going to forgive or forget her shouting at me.” I folded up my sixth pancake after moistening it liberally with strawberry sauce from the second container. “But I haven’t decided how I’m going to pay her back for treating me like dirt—”
“She was protecting me.”
He said it so smoothly, so matter-of-factly, that it stopped me cold with the pancake at my open mouth.
“She was protecting me, Isabel.”
I lowered the pancake away from my mouth. “Protecting you from whom?”
A dark frown furrowed my brow. “Why? I wasn’t going to hurt you.”
Straus shook his head slowly. “She was afraid of how the Angel Fibers in my body would react to you.”
For a short while, I forgot about the pancake in my hand until I felt the strawberry sauce trickle onto my fingers.
I had little choice but to it quickly, wipe my hands on a paper serviette, then wash down the pancake by gulping down mouthfuls of soda.
Planting the can back on the table, I narrowed my eyes at Straus. “Care to explain?”
Straus opened his mouth but then glanced away westward in the direction of the city.
Standing behind him, Ghost did the same and a grave look spread across his face. “Princess, I would advise you to remain calm.”
I couldn’t reply to him without giving him away, but I was also curious and concerned by the manner in which both Ghost and Straus were looking off in the direction of the city.
Somewhat reluctantly, I turned my head and followed their line of sight.
Standing beside the door of a sleek, low slung sports car, was my former sister, dressed in casual black slacks, white high heels, and a white blouse with ruffled sleeves and neckline.
As usual since our reunion, Erina looked like she’d stepped out of a magazine reporting on Ar Telica’s upper class society, and indeed she was since her fiancé was none other than Simon Sanreal, eldest son of the extravagantly rich Sanreal Family. Even from a distance, I could see the sparkle of her engagement ring as it caught the morning sunlight.
When our eyes met, Erina pushed herself away from the matt silver sports car, and began walking toward us.
At that moment, I heard Straus curse softly under his breath. Again, I found that quite impressive for a remote operated machine.
Rising from the bench seat, Straus bade me, “Wait here,” then quickly walked to intercept Erina long before she could arrive at the table.
I decided to continue eating my remaining pancakes, though hunger had deserted me at sight of the woman that I despised.
“Ghost, did you tell Straus where to find me?”
In the corner of my eye, I watched him glance at me. “Aye, Princess.”
“You used Tabitha’s phone, right?”
“You are a sneaky bastard.”
“Princess, I was concerned about Taura Hexaria and the lies she was feeding you.”
“But you didn’t tell me it was a lie.”
“No. Had I done so, and had you confronted her with the truth, it would have diverted her from her objective. I wanted your reactions to be completely natural to her offer.”
“So you were testing me, just like Tabitha was testing me.”
“I was observing you, my Princess.”
I took the time to eat my seventh and final pancake, drank liberally from the soda can, then burped quite un-lady like. “Ghost, whose side are you on?”
Tidying up after myself, I placed the unused serviettes into a skirt pocket and the empty strawberry sauce containers into the paper bag before rolling it up.
Then I looked at Ghost and shook my head slowly at him for a short while.
“No. You’re on Clarisol’s side.”
For an Artificial Awareness, regardless of its origins, Ghost displayed a remarkable human reaction – a faintly pained expression that briefly flickered across his face.
After holding his gaze with an unwavering stare, I sighed, and Ghost chose that moment to reply.
“Princess, I hold both yours and Clarisol’s interest at heart.”
“Is that so….”
I turned away from him, proverbially turning my back to him, and waited with forced calm for Erina and Straus to arrive at the picnic table.
Wisely, Erina chose to stop several feet away from me, while Straus assumed a position that would allow him to step between us with only a couple of strides.
Erina watched me with an unreadable expression, but I had no doubt the wheels were churning madly in her head as she played out various opening exchanges in her mind.
I simply waited for her opening move, and would play the rest by ear and gut intuition.
True, I wasn’t one for strategizing.
Wetting her lips, Erina broke her silence with a gentle tone that immediately had me wondering what the game was.
“You look good in uniform,” she observed.
“Thanks. Tabitha said it was tailor made.”
Not entirely true, but she did admit to knowing my sizes.
Erina grew rigid for a mere heartbeat. It was so faint and quick that I had I not been looking at her keenly, it would have escaped my notice.
But I’d mentioned Tabitha deliberately to gauge her reaction.
I see. Straus was right. There’s no love between House Novis and House Cardinal.
Then I had another thought.
Does Erina see herself as a member of House Novis…or the Sanreal Family?
I turned on the bench seat, straddling it with my legs such that I was now facing her properly.
Erina didn’t appear to approve of my decision, sparing my skirt a pointed glance.
I smirked inwardly. “I take it Straus told you about my encounter with her?”
I considered how easily she had replied.
Was she listening in on our conversation?
I glanced at Straus.
That’s a mechanical avatar. Does that mean Erina can see and hear whatever Straus sees and hears through the avatar’s senses? Was she watching me through the avatar’s eyes?
I chose to proceed under that assumption as I leaned forward slightly toward Erina.
“So, give me your honest opinion. Should I take up her offer?”
“That would be problematic.”
I snorted and then broke into a strained laugh. “So I’ve been told….”
Erina had been standing with her hands folded lightly over her midriff, but now she chose to fold her arms under her breasts. “Are you considering it?”
I inhaled slow and deep, thinking my answer over. “No.”
“May I ask why not?”
“Because she wasn’t honest with me. So I have no reason to trust her offer. End of story.”
I made a show of frowning up at her. “Do you?” Miming the act of moving game pieces on a board, I asked her, “Have you played out the
situation all the way to checkmate? Do you know what I’ll do next?”
Erina pursed her lips and didn’t reply.
“Why are you here?” I asked. It was what I should have asked first, but I’d been playing my opening moves in response to hers.
“I came to talk.”
This time I made a show of looking surprised. Then I sneered at her. “To talk and not shout at me?”
“Isabel, there are things I must explain to you.”
Still sitting astride the bench seat, I leaned back, resting my weight on my arms stretched out behind me. “I’m listening.”
“You are aware that Akane’s body contains the Angel Fibers.”
I gently nodded once. “Yes, she’s Prototype One.”
A faint wince flickered across Erina’s lips before she swallowed and continued. “I don’t know what effect the presence of your body will have on the Angel Fibers.”
I raised my chin slightly. “You mean when I’m close to her?”
“Correct. You told me that the Angel Fibers in the ampules reacted to your presence—to your intentions.”
This time, my nod wasn’t so certain as I remembered the tiny sparkling particles swimming in that silver sea within the ampule.
Erina sounded cautious as she continued. “I reacted out of fear…fear of not knowing what would happen to her. For that, I’m sorry.”
My eyebrows rose markedly toward my hairline. “Are you apologizing?”
Erina wet her lips again. “Akane is a dear friend. I wanted to save her. But instead I almost killed her.”
I was puzzled.
Was Erina apologizing to me or wasn’t she? Granted, she did say she was sorry, but was she now rationalizing why she’d yelled at me?
I decided not to ask her again because it seemed she wasn’t done talking.
“I got ahead of myself,” Erina continued. “I was reckless, overconfident, desperate, and I made a mistake…one that almost killed her. And now she lives with the consequences of my mistake.”
In my peripheral vision, I noticed Straus flinch faintly. For a moment, I thought he would break his silence but instead he pressed his lips tightly together and said nothing.
However, it made me wonder if Straus didn’t agree with Erina blaming herself, and so I said, “Akane told me you saved her.”
“Saved her?” Erina swallowed quietly and looked faintly pained as she glanced at Straus standing silently off to a side. “I didn’t save her. Her condition no longer deteriorates, but neither does it improve. And you’ve seen how the Angel Fibers have disfigured her.”
I read Erina’s regret in her voice, and it distracted me a little because it irked me to believe she would care more about someone who wasn’t family – that she would care more about Straus than about me.
Then again, I wasn’t family to her.
I was her creation.
And yet, didn’t that also make me her child, or was I just the monster to her Victor Frankenstein?
I expelled a loud sigh. “Yeah…breaks my heart….”
And there it was, a flicker of anger in Erina’s eyes, and I had my answer.
It was the answer I had expected, yet heartache made my chest tighten. In response, I clenched my hands on the bench seat, and bit down hard on the inside of my mouth, the pain of which distracted me from the emotional anguish, allowing me to pull myself together after an irrational moment of weakness where part of me had held a fragile hope that I meant more to Erina than Akane Straus.
How very stupid of me….
When I’d regained a grip on my composure, I leaned forward on the bench seat. “If that’s an apology…you need to work on it.”
Then I swung a leg over the seat, stood up, and with hands on hips, I fixed a cold glare on Erina.
“Now, tell me why you’re really here because I don’t believe for a frekking heartbeat that it was just to apologize.”
Erina stepped closer but stopped a couple of meters shy of me.
“You’ve been making waves,” she said. “And that’s made some people unhappy with you…and me.”
“Your Sanreal masters?” I scoffed at her.
“They’re your masters, too.”
She said it matter-of-factly, and I bristled at her, but then I saw worry in her eyes – real worry – and it stalled my retort somewhere in my throat.
They will box you.
Perhaps Erina guessed at my thoughts, because she nodded subtly.
But more so, I was certain now that Erina had been following the conversation with Straus. However, I wasn’t sure if she had done so with Straus’s knowledge or consent. The reason that I doubted the two were on the same page was because Straus had looked shocked to see Erina waiting by her car, and now she was watching Erina with poorly veiled suspicion.
Thus, it could be that things weren’t kosher between them, but was this something I could use to my advantage?
I chose to shelve the possibility for later consideration, and gave Erina my full attention. I was facing a grand master after all.
“Cut to the chase, Erina. I don’t have all day.”
“Neither do I,” she replied.
“So let’s hear it then.”
“The Sanreal Family isn’t happy with your lack of co-operation.”
“You have a hand in that.”
She nodded faintly. “Agreed. Managing you has been unexpectedly difficult.”
I smiled angrily at Erina. “Managing me?”
“I am your Guardian.”
“Managing me?” I repeated, twisting my lips into a rictus grin.
Erina paused and took a deep breath. “He wants to speak with you.”
“The head of the Sanreal Family…and House Novis”
My eyes widened in response to the sudden anxious pang I felt in my chest. “Phelan Sanreal Erz Novis…?”
Erina gave me a subdued nod, her expression grim. “Isabel, I came here to pick you up. To take you to him.”
“In that case,” Straus suddenly moved between Erina and I, his attention directed toward where Erina had parked her car in the narrow street between the two strips of parkland. “What are they doing here?”
Erina glanced first at Straus, then half turned to look over her right shoulder in the direction of her car.
I diverted my gaze as well, and in the distance I saw numerous men and women in black business suits disembarking from a trio of equally dark suburban vehicles that gave off the impression they were both heavy and armored.
“Damn it,” Erina hissed, then spun around to point sharply at me. “Don’t even think about running away! Not this time. You stay right there!”
I snarled at her while clenching and unclenching my hands. “Yelling at me again?”
“This is for your own good, Isabel. I am not joking around. You run away now—you make a single wrong move, and this will not end well. I mean it.”
I made a point of sweeping my gaze over my surroundings. “Why? Are they going to try something out here? In a public place? With these people around?”
“Public or not, it won’t make a difference. Trust me on this!”
“Why the Hell should I?”
Erina surprised me but stepping right up to me. “Listen to me, Isabel. If you only ever listen to me once—do it this time.”
I stared slightly up at her with swirling emotions, some of which burned my innards while others chilled me.
“Don’t—go—anywhere,” she instructed and with those words, Erina strode off in the direction of the waiting men and women clad in black business suits and dark sunglasses.
However, Straus chose to wait behind with an anxious expression directed at the sinister newcomers.
Ghost stepped into my peripheral vision. “Princess, I strongly urge you to heed her advice.”
“Why?” I asked softly, barely even a whisper.
“I fear you are being watched from above.”
“…what…?” I looked up but could see nothing but a partly overcast morning sky. “…what are you talking about…?”
“Princess, you are aware that I am able to infiltrate photronic systems within your vicinity.”
I muttered a reply with a whisper that even I barely heard. “Yeah, you mentioned that before.”
“The truth is that I use the wetware in your head as a node point. From there, I can connect to the surrounding grid.”
I felt my eyes widen a little. “You’re using me like a part of a network.”
“Correct. I am tethering myself to you from within the Sarcophagus.”
I lowered my whisper to a hiss. “You’re using me like a smartphone?”
“Indeed. Through you, I am able to establish a connection to the grid surrounding you.”
I closed my eyes as I took a deep breath. “You can’t do it directly from the Sarcophagus?”
“No, I am not that omnipotent. But since I am streaming through you, the vast bulk of my processing power is within the Sarcophagus so it does not tax your wetware.”
“How comforting,” I whispered as I folded my arms under my bust. “So? So what?”
“By using the parkland’s surveillance grid, I have been able to redirect a handful of the cameras to the buildings across the street to the west of us.”
“And I have noticed someone on the seventeenth floor of the building due west of your position.”
I opened my eyes, blinking twice to clear my vision, then focused on the building Ghost’s projection was pointing toward.
“There, Princess, on that garden balcony.”
I squinted and focused hard in the direction he was pointing.
The permaglass of the building’s façade was coated with an anti-reflective material that prevented the sun from reflecting harshly off its surface.
The same could be said for the sniping scope mounted atop a rifle aimed in my direction. Because they were making use of the garden on the balcony to hide themselves, I couldn’t determine what kind of weapon they were aiming at me, nor could I see the sniper, but I felt it hardly mattered.
“…wonderful…,” I breathed out softly, then noticed Straus giving me a curious look.
“What are you mumbling about?” he asked.
“Did you know about this?” I asked in reply.
Straus looked troubled before shaking his head tightly. “No.”
I tipped my head away from him. “Oh? They pulled a fast one on you and Erina? Blindsided, were we?”
“Damn well looks that way,” he replied and turned back to look at Erina in discussion with one of the men in dark suits.
“Who are they? Sanreal hunting dogs?”
Straus gave me a reproachful glance. “Sanreal executive security.”
I pouted for a moment before asking, “Are they human or Simulacra?”
Straus glanced at me again, curiously this time. “Can’t you tell? I thought that was your talent.”
“It is. But I can’t use it from this distance,” I lied. “I need to get closer.”
Then the proverbial penny dropped and I felt a chill run through me.
Does she know about my ability to see the aura around living things? When did she find out? Or was she referring to something else I can do?
I stared at Straus with a modicum of suspicion, but he didn’t appear to notice as he hurriedly stepped between me and the executive security personnel in the distance.
“Oh no, no, no!” he cried out. “You’re not going anywhere—certainly not over there. You’re waiting right here with me.”
Staring at him askance, I slowly pushed my suspicions aside as I planted my hands on my hips. “The Sanreals have come for me, right?”
He exhaled loudly and his shoulders slumped slightly in resignation. “More than likely.”
“So there’s a chance they came for someone else.”
He exhaled again, and nodded subtly on this occasion. “It’s possible they came for your sister. But I believe they came here for you.”
I held back a frown.
Would they really come for Erina? Does that mean they suspect her…?
Raising my chin slightly, I continued to look sidelong at Straus. “Then does that mean they came for Isabel val Sanreal, or for Mirai?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then let’s find out,” I suggested smoothly.
“Nope. No way. We wait here.”
I shook my head and turned my head toward Straus, adding with a smile, “Show a little backbone.”
“Courage is not the problem.”
“Then what’s the problem? Is it the sniper aiming at me from the building across the street?”
Straus’s eyes widened so much I could see the whites surrounding the irises. “What?”
I broadened my smile and pointed in the direction of the building where the sniper was hiding. “They’re over there. Seventeenth floor.”
As Straus turned to look where I was indicating with an outstretched arm and finger, I slipped around him and strode quickly toward Erina and the executive security people. As I walked across the strip of parkland, I made it a point to wave at the sniper hiding on the garden balcony.
“I can see you,” I mouthed in their direction.
In the event they couldn’t read lips, I made matters clearer by pointing at my eyes then I pointed at them.
Straus ran ahead of me and then stopped to block my path. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
I looked at him innocently. “I told you. I’m going to find out if they came for me.”
Straus shook his head quickly. “You can find that out soon enough. Let Erina handle this.”
I dipped my head at him. “Are you worried about the sniper?”
“Yeah, I’m worried. And how the Hell did you know there’s a sniper out there?”
I arched my eyebrows. “You saw them.”
He nodded stiffly. “Yeah, I saw them. Now how did you know they were there?”
“My invisible friend told me.”
“Your what?” Straus made no effort to hide his confusion.
I sighed and smiled thinly up at him. “Don’t you have one too?”
“I most certainly do not.”
Again, I sighed. “Straus, I know you’re worried. But trust me. I’m not going to make any sudden moves.”
“You don’t need to go over there.”
“Yes, I do.”
Straus was looking and sounding frustrated with me.
In contrast, I was mildly surprised by how calm I sounded, and it seemed to frustrate Straus even more. “Because I’ve been doing this too often.”
“No,” I shook my head gently. “Running away.”
The noticeable scowl he’d been wearing slowly faded off his face.
I sighed a third time, and felt it was once too often but it was already out the door. “Straus, I ran away from Erina. I ran away from the students in the stairwell. I ran away from Tabitha.”
“I had something to do with that,” he admitted, sounding contrite.
Shaking my head again, I said, “I could have stopped you. In fact, I did stop you.”
“So what are you saying?”
“That I’m not going to run away from the Sanreals.” I jutted my chin in Erina’s direction. “I’m going over there as Isabel val
Sanreal. If Daddy Dearest wants to meet me, then who am I turn down his invitation?” I grinned at Straus. “As the saying goes, take me to your leader.”
“I don’t think you’re using it in the right context.”
My grin ebbed away as I shrugged a shoulder. “Whatever. You get what I mean.”
“So…are you going to be a good boy and escort me over there?” I glanced in the sniper’s direction. “Like I said, I won’t make any sudden moves, but I’m not going to be putting my hands on the back of my head.”
For a long while, Straus looked over his shoulder at the building across the street. Eventually, he turned away and paid Erina and company a tense glance before facing me.
“No sudden moves. Right?” he asked.
“No sudden moves,” I affirmed, then tossed my hair like I’d seen some of the girls of Telos Academy do. “Well, let’s go meet the family.”
Straus looked disappointed at my effort. “You need a lot more practice.”
I wrinkled my nose at him. “Care to teach me?”
He pointed at himself. “Not like this I’m not. But I’m sure we can find you a few instructional holovids on how to be a spoilt Princess.”
“I just want to learn how to toss my hair.”
Straus looked puzzled. “Truthfully, I’m surprised to hear you say that. It’s not something I expected to come from you.”
My breath caught in my chest as I realized what he meant.
He’s right. Why am I choosing to act like a girl now?
Feeling my emotions sower, I humphed bitterly, and then stormed around him.
Straus fell into step beside me a couple of seconds later, sounding clearly uneasy as I cut a beeline toward Erina and the Sanreal security people. “You will try to behave, right?”
“I’m going to be the perfect spoilt princess,” I grumbled under my breath.
“That’s what I was afraid of.”
Sorry this took a couple of weeks to post.
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