Dear Readers, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Apologies for the delay. Here is the full Chapter 8.
– I –
I sat on the edge of the bed, in a bathrobe, and held my head in my hands.
Why a bathrobe?
Because the maids had ensured there wasn’t a single scrap of clothing in the entire suite other than a bathrobe and fluffy slippers for me to wear.
Oh, and those slippers were shaped like bunnies.
After stumbling out of the bathtub in a daze, it was Ghost who directed me to the bathrobe. With my mind in a discombobulated state, I would have stumbled about naked had it not been for his intervention. Afterwards, when my cognitive functions recovered to the point where I could think for myself, I’d searched the suite to find all the drawers, shelves, wardrobes, and closets completely empty.
My options had been limited.
Flee the suite while wearing only the bathrobe, or regain my composure and calmly take stock of the situation. I chose the latter, and this is why I was now sitting on the edge of a four-poster Empress-sized bed.
For a while, bowed over and with my head in my hands, I stared absently at the bunny slippers until I succumbed to a sudden irrepressible urge to kick them off and flung them across the bedroom.
“…I don’t want to hear it…,” I whispered to Ghost. “Just…just be quiet.”
“I am sorry, but I cannot comply. You had questions to ask, and your meeting with Sanreal is nigh upon you.”
“I’m not ready to see him….”
No, I wasn’t ready to see him or deal with anyone else.
I could barely think at all, let alone listen or hold a conversation.
I’d read about the five stages of dealing with loss and grief. The first is denial, followed by anger, then a need to bargain, then getting depressed before finally reaching acceptance. In my case I wasn’t facing a loss and I wasn’t overcome with grief but instead overwhelmed by disbelief laced with cold dread. So was it possible to apply the five stages to my circumstances and state of mind? Was disbelief another form of denial? Assuming it was then I could expect anger was next in line for me. I had kicked the bunny slippers clear across the room, but that had been on a sudden impulse. I didn’t feel I was at the anger stage just yet. But when the time came who would I lash out at? I thought of Erina. Perhaps the next time I saw her I would throttle her, but right now I didn’t feel the urge to strangle her.
Moving on past anger came the bargaining stage. This was something people do before a loss, such as attempting to bargain with a higher power, but in my case I’d already lost something. No, again that wasn’t right. I never had that something to begin with. So what had I lost? My innocence? No, my ignorance. As they say, ignorance is bliss. Give me back my ignorance. Nonetheless, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that I could make a bargain. The question is who would I bargain with, and what did I have to offer?
Abruptly, my thoughts came to a stop and I raised my head slightly to look at the carpeted floor beneath my bare feet.
Of a sudden, I’d remembered that my true problem wasn’t becoming pregnant but being boxed in a virtual prison.
If Sanreal tells me I’m going to be boxed, how will I bargain with him?
I pondered the thought in silence, and my gaze fell on the bunny slippers lying on the opposite side of the spacious bedroom.
So girly. So feminine. So…revolting.
Yes, part of me found those slippers utterly repugnant.
And part of me didn’t.
I really am inside a female body, with all the right plumbing. Inhaling deeply, I mulled another thought. This body was meant for Clarisol. Is this why it can fall pregnant? Was it to give Clarisol a chance to start a family of her own, far away from the danger posed by the Empress?
I lowered my head back to my hands.
I don’t belong in this body. I know it’s not my fault but I feel like a thief—
Without looking up, I sensed Ghost approach me. At another time I would have felt unsettled by that fact, especially since he was merely a projection into my mind so how was it possible for me to sense his presence, but with my thoughts at a near standstill the realization barely caused a stir in the still waters of my mind.
As I mentioned, I sensed Ghost approach me. I then sensed him drop to one knee, and true enough when I looked up a little I saw him on bended knee before me.
“Princess, I am sorry.”
A frown flickered faintly across my brow. “You have a lot to be sorry about. So what is it this time?”
“I am sorry for revealing your potential to bear children. I had hoped you would find out in due time, and yet I torpedoed that intention.”
“In due time?” I snorted softly and shook my head weakly. “You mean after I’m pregnant.”
Ghost expressed alarm. “Princess!”
I shook my head again, and closed my eyes. “Forget it. Yeah, I would have found out eventually. But your timing does suck….”
Oddly, rationalizing the situation in that manner made me feel a little better. Maybe later I would resume wallowing in denial, disbelief, and self-pity, but for now my head felt a little clearer.
“Princess, you had questions for me, and time is short.”
I may have felt a little better, but I wasn’t in the mood for conversation. “I don’t feel like asking anymore….”
“Very well, then allow me to anticipate your questions.”
Irritation flickered to life within me. I truly didn’t want to talk or listen to Ghost. I simply wasn’t in the right frame of mind for more of his good news. The grip on my composure was too fragile to handle another reality shattering revelation. “Ghost, just let me be….”
“Princess, I talk. You listen. That is all.”
I exhaled curtly. “You’re not going to shut up even if I tell you to, are you?”
“You would be wise to heed advice when it is offered to you.”
I sat up on the bed. “You are beginning to piss me off.”
“And you are frustrating beyond measure.”
I tapped a temple. “Get out of my head.”
“Not until I get a few things through into that thick skull of yours. Starting with where you are right now.”
“My thick skull?”
Ghost bowed his head for a moment and took a deep, deep breath. “Princess, we are short on time. I ask you to simply listen. Nothing more. Is that so much to ask?”
I felt like I was back in the bathroom, and the prospect of having yet another argument didn’t appeal to me. I understood that arguing with Ghost solved little, but lately he’d progressively worked his way under my skin. However, by the same token I wasn’t making things easy either. I knew there was a limit to how stubborn and recalcitrant I could and should be, but I was having trouble controlling my emotions as though the dial in my head had been spun to Bitch Mode and was now stuck. So I understood why Ghost grew increasing vexed with me, and in truth I was growing frustrated with myself as well.
I needed to break out of this vicious cycle I’d fallen into.
But as the saying goes, easier said than done.
Ghost started to rise to his feet. “Very well. Have it your way—”
He stopped moving and regarded me with distrust.
Straightening my posture a little more, I released a heavy breath and slowly folded my arms under my breasts. “Let’s hear it. Where am I?”
Perhaps engaging in a calm, rational conversation would nudge the dial in my head away from Bitch Mode. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to learn more about my surroundings. And Ghost had anticipated one of my questions, though not in the correct order.
Ghost’s eyes searched my face, undoubtedly gauging whether I really intended to hear him out. After a second or two, he took what sounded a satisfied breath, and resumed kneeling before me. “Princess, do you recall the Citadels you saw in Clarisol’s virtual prison?”
I nodded faintly. “Yeah, I remember them. Those big wheels with cogs. You said the cogs are like a docking mechanism for Citadels so that they can hook up.”
“That is correct. Transporting a Citadel through the Conduit is impossible. A Citadel is roughly nine kilometers in diameter. The Conduit is barely wide enough for a compact military truck to pass through. However, it is possible to transport a small Fabricator through the Conduit, and a small Fabricator can be used to make a big Fabricator. A big Fabricator can then be used to make a bigger Fabricator and then—”
I sharply raised a hand. “I get it. A bigger Fabricator can make the biggest Fabricator.”
“No. A bigger Fabricator can make the facilities to construct a Citadel.”
My eyes widened to their limit as I realized what he meant.
Aboard Clarisol’s boat, the Carnal Sin, Mat had told me the same thing. It was impossible for a Citadel to travel through the Conduit to this universe. What he didn’t tell me was that it was unnecessary because they could be built on this side using a Fabricator.
Was it because he didn’t know? Or was he keeping it from me so as not to worry me?
I was bothered by his omission, and swallowed to clear my throat before asking, “Are we inside a Citadel?”
On bended knee, Ghost looked up at me. “Yes, Princess. We are aboard House Novis’s Citadel.”
I thought of what I’d seen in the virtual prison, and comparing it to the house, the gardens, and lagoon sized pool. “I have to admit, it’s not what I expected.”
“Well, it’s a lot more…normal, I guess?”
I struggled to give him a better answer. “I mean that it’s like a summer home. A coastal resort or retreat. It doesn’t look futuristic. It’s more like an homage to the villas of the past.”
Ghost smiled faintly at me but I didn’t feel he was mocking me. “The Noble Houses refer to them as Citadels but in appearance and design they are unlike those that you saw. However, they are nonetheless the blending of a starship, a city, and a fortress.”
I felt sudden apprehension prick at my heart. “It’s a warship?”
Ghost nodded at first but then shook his head. “It is more than a warship. Think of it as the castle for a Noble House. Its home fortress. A place from where the rulers of a Noble House can direct their affairs. However, it is well fortified and well armed. As such, it is fitting to refer to it as a Citadel.”
I swallowed again. “So…we’re inside a ship?”
Ghost nodded politely.
Remembering the size of the estate and the dome, I hesitantly asked, “How big is it?”
Ghost backed away, putting a little more space between us, and then waved his hand like a magician would.
In my vision, an image roughly fourteen or fifteen inches in size appeared. It was the image of a strange looking vessel. Oddly, I instinctively knew that I was looking at the representation of a ship, perhaps because of the context of our conversation, but it was quite unlike any vessel I’d ever seen or read about. It resembled a whale. It had no fins, instead possessing pontoons that hung off its flanks. There were no tail flukes either. The stern had a bulging, rocket-like appearance with two cannons mounted on either side. I had the impression the cannons could move and reorient because they were attached to bent mechanical arms that were themselves connected to the stern.
With a finger, Ghost indicated the image I was seeing. “This is the Sanreal Novis, named after the Noble Family that presently rules House Novis.”
“Presently?” I frowned at him. “I don’t understand.”
“There are other Noble Families beside the Sanreals within House Novis. The Sanreal Family happens to lead House Novis at this time. If they were to fall or be usurped by another family, then the Citadel’s designation—its name—would change.”
“Other Noble Families?”
“Correct. Your friend, Matrim, is a Sanreal but has been adopted into the Praetor Noble Family, a so-called lesser family within House Novis.”
So that’s how it is, I thought to myself, then wondered how the other families viewed the Sanreal Family’s leadership of House Novis. At that thought, I suddenly realized that House Novis was more like a corporation, one where its leadership could change if it were overthrown at the next board meeting. Therefore, did House Novis have family meetings? Could it face a leadership challenge? Was it facing a leadership challenge? How secure was its controlling grip on House Novis?
Do I have a part to play in that? Is that another reason why I was brought here? I shook my head inwardly. I’m speculating blindly and that’s dangerous.
Ghost was watching me keenly. “Princess?”
I wet my lips quickly and favored him with a hasty nod, hoping I hadn’t betrayed my thoughts. “Go on.”
A section on the ventral hull at the stern of ship’s image glowed a warm orange. It was a tiny area compared to the remainder of the so-called Citadel.
“This is the Estate,” Ghost explained. “The domed area you are currently inside. This house, the pool, and the gardens occupy a small percentage of the Citadel’s internal volume.”
Having briefly seen the scale of the house and surrounding lands while I was falling, I was having trouble accepting we were inside such a small section of the ship. By my estimates, it would make the Citadel comparable to an orbital city.
“Ghost, how big is this ship?”
“Her overall length is six thousand seven hundred meters. She is twenty-four hundred meters wide, and over a kilometer in height. Estimated displacement is an incredibly light ninety-six million metric tonnes.”
“You call that light—?” I swallowed hard in a hurry as Ghost changed the image to show me the Citadel in relation to Ar Telica’s harbor. “My gods…,” I whispered. “It’s bigger than a colony settlement ship.”
“Indeed. I should point out that the Sanreal Novis is not the only Citadel in this reality. Every Noble House that has secured a foothold in this universe will have been granted permission by the Imperial family to construct themselves a Citadel. By my estimates using the intelligence data garnered by House Novis, there are seventeen other Citadels, including one belonging to House Aventisse, the Feylan Aventisse.”
My innards tightened for a beat and I threw Ghost a questioning look. “Clarisol Sanreal Erz Novis.”
Ghost frowned. “Yes?”
“Back in the virtual space, you said Kateopia Feylan Aventisse. Shouldn’t it have been Kateopia Feylan Erz Aventisse?”
Ghost blinked quickly as he demonstrated mild surprise. “Indeed. You are quite correct.”
“You also said the Emperor’s name was Kateas Fantom Aventisse. Why not Kateas Fantom Erz Aventisse?”
“Consider it a privilege of the Imperial family to forgo the need to differentiate between Family and House.”
I leaned slightly toward him. “Why Feylan and not Fantom?”
“Feylan is Kateopia’s maiden name. Her mother hailed from the Feylan Family.”
I blinked slowly as I wondered if Kateopia did not approve her father’s noble family and had thus chosen the name Feylan. Then I frowned again at a sudden thought. “Clarisol and Mat’s mother. Was she a Praetor?”
Ghost raised his head slightly to look up at me. “Yes, she was….”
“I see. So that’s why Mat was taken in by them.”
I was beginning to understand how the families and Noble Houses fit together. The tradition and hierarchy wasn’t that hard to follow.
I chose to put what I’d learned aside, and stared at the image of the immense Citadel. “What does Kateopia’s ship look like?”
An odd expression crossed Ghost’s face. Was he wondering why I’d changed the subject yet again? Regardless, he soon waved his hand once more and the representation of a second vessel appeared beside that of the Sanreal Novis.
Its enormous size made my stomach turn over with worry. “Are you kidding me?”
“No, Princess. I am not. The Imperial family makes no effort to hide the true scale of their Citadel. It is a stark warning to all the other Noble Houses that they hold the most powerful card of all.”
Unlike the Sanreal Novis, the Feylan Aventisse had less of an aquatic shape. It was far longer and sleeker, and resembled two short swords placed atop each other. Wedge shaped sails extended from its dorsal and ventral hulls. If its representation was to scale with the Sanreal Novis, then Kateopia’s Citadel utterly overshadowed it.
I had a truly unsettling thought. “Ghost, do you know where that ship is?”
“No. None of the Noble Houses know the location of the other Citadels.”
Hearing that made me hesitate before asking, “Then do you think Kateopia is in this universe?”
Ghost looked uncertain for a telling moment, before growing thoughtful. “Why do you ask?”
“Why go to the trouble of building such a large ship if you’re not going to use it?”
His eyes narrowed and I wondered if he’d caught onto my train of thought. “You believe she is here?”
“Like I said, why build something on a such a grand scale, but not use it?” I wet my lips before apprehensively pressing on. “Ghost, what’s Kateopia like? Is she someone who craves power? Is she…ostentatious? Vain? Avaricious?”
“Most assuredly, on all four counts.”
I pressed my lips together as I mulled over my next question. “Ghost, what’s the conduit between our respective universes like?”
“The bridgeway consists of two circular structures, Remnant technology, roughly three point one four meters in diameter.”
“Huh…?” I stared at him blankly while thinking, Isn’t that a rough approximation for Pi? After swallowing quickly, I asked, “Can it be moved around?”
Ghost blinked in a very human demonstration of surprise. “Princess?”
“Can either end of the bridgeway be moved around?”
Ghost became still and quiet.
I had the impression he was doing either some heavy thinking or extensive data sifting.
When he blinked again, his gaze met mine with veiled curiosity, conceivably because he was puzzled by my line of questioning. “It was theorized but never attempted.”
“The risk of losing the Conduit—of breaking the bridgeway—was simply too high to contemplate.”
I bit my lower lip, keeping to my train of thought. “If it could be moved, would people on either end notice?”
“They would indeed.”
I held back a frown. “So we don’t know if it can be moved. And even if it’s possible, Kateopia wouldn’t be able to do it without others noticing, right?”
“Most assuredly. She already strictly controls its usage. But assuming complete control of it and restricting traffic through the Conduit would undoubtedly incite another rebellion against her.”
I tipped my head to a side. “Then could she make a conduit for herself?”
Ghost’s eyes narrowed into thin slits. “The construction of another Conduit is prohibited by Imperial decree.”
“That’s not what I was asking.”
“It has been attempted in the past and all efforts ended in failure.”
“Constructing or should I say replicating the Conduit gateways is possible with the Fabricators. The problem is a question of timing. Both ends of the bridgeway must be turned on at the same time. Precisely the same moment. A failure causes a temporary schism in reality—something like a fault line—that translates to a very big boom when reality returns to normal. More than a few research facilities have vanished from existence as a consequence of failure.”
“Reduced to subatomic particles.”
“After the last such failure, the Emperor decreed that all attempts to create another Conduit were officially banned. Anyone in breach of this decree would face severe punishment regardless of their social or military status.”
“What about the Sarcophagi?”
Ghost flinched and grew rigid. “What about them?”
I narrowed my eyes at him and asked, “Can a Sarcophagi travel between our two universes?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Because you told me the space between universes is Limbo. And Ronin Kassius was in Limbo when Akane Straus saved him. So how did she get there?”
“She was translocated there along with you.”
“House Aventisse had used a Fabricator to make a sliver of the Proving Grounds island.”
“They copied part of the island and translocated it into Limbo. Ronin was later translocated onto the sliver. Because he was being tracked, Akane Straus was able to use her Sarcophagus to translocate onto the Sliver as well. She caught up to him before he could die, brought him into her Sarcophagus and then jumped back into this universe.”
I leaned forward toward Ghost excitedly. “So it is possible for a Sarcophagus to move in and out of a universe. Then they can be used to travel between your universe and mine.”
“No, it is not possible.”
Feeling disappointed, I leaned back and away from him. “Why not?”
“Sarcophagi need a waypoint to guide them.”
“So does that mean that they are used to travel between—?”
“No,” Ghost cut me off in a hurry as he swiftly stood up. “While their drive engine allows them to slip through the fabric of the universe—to escape the bubble from anywhere within the bubble—they cannot self navigate. There is no equivalent inertial guidance system for them. There are no stars to steer by.”
“I told you. By navigational waypoint. By a homing signal. A Sarcophagus knows at all times where you are because you are linked to it. It also remembers places it has visited in the past. That allows it to be moved from place to place. For example, having you aboard the Sanreal Crest allowed your Sarcophagus to be guided into the belly hangar. In fact, I was the one piloting it into its support cradle.”
I was confused by Ghost’s explanation. “Are you saying it can only go to places where I’ve been to?”
“Yes. That is the restriction that the Ancients, the builders of the Remnant technology imposed upon their design.”
“So it wasn’t a limitation human engineers implemented?”
Ghost shook his head. “Indeed not. And we are fairly certain the Ancients developed and constructed the Sarcophagi after the Conduit was established.”
“Do you know why they made them that way?”
Ghost rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders for added emphasis. “To make life challenging, I suppose. Or perhaps there was a problem they encountered and therefore had to limit the capabilities of the Sarcophagi. For example, even when establishing waypoints between the two universes, a Sarcophagus has failed to jump from one bubble to the other.”
My eyebrows rose to my hairline in disbelief. “Really? So if I go over to the other universe, my Sarcophagus won’t go along with me.”
Ghost nodded grimly. “Correct.”
“So then the Conduit is the only way to travel between our universes.”
“That is correct.”
“Hmm. Okay, food for thought….”
Did that mean Kateopia wouldn’t be able to move people and resources between the two universes without the other Noble Houses noticing? No, resources wouldn’t be necessary since she could use a Fabricator to make whatever she wanted, but people were another matter.
“Ghost, can a Fabricator make Simulacra…or people?”
“No.” Ghost shook his head sharply. “A Fabricator cannot replicate or make a living organism. Every attempt to make something living has resulted in failure. Even something like bacteria would be dead on fabrication.”
“So there are limits to what it can make?”
Ghost nodded sagely as he replied, “Without a doubt.”
I sighed inwardly in thought.
If people couldn’t be replicated, then who was crewing these immense Citadels? Was everyone here a Simulacra? Was the onboard automation so high they didn’t need a crew?
Yet more questions I would need to shelve. The alternative was to ask Ghost but I didn’t feel comfortable with that option because part of me worried that he would suspect why I was asking these questions.
Then quite abruptly, it became a moot point.
“Princess, are you concerned that Kateopia will invade this universe?”
I stared at him in shock. “Huh?”
Ghost somberly watched me. “You asked Master Matrim that question back on Mistress Clarisol’s yacht.”
I cleared my throat. “Am I that obvious?”
He shook his head gently. “No. You are not. However, I have been with you for long enough to understand your concerns.”
You’re pretty much saying that I’m easy to read.
I exhaled loudly and looked back down to my feet. “Ghost—”
“Princess, I understand your concerns and it is something we can discuss later. But for now, we must move onto question number two.”
Looking up at Ghost, I arched an eyebrow at him.
Changing the subject yet again, are we?
I had two questions in mind, but noticing Ghost grow even more somber, I whispered a name I’d rather forget.
“Yes, Princess.” Ghost sounded as grave as he looked. “Geharis Arnval.”
I sat on the edge of the bed, looking up at Ghost, yet thinking of a young man that I had come to intensely dislike in a remarkably short period of time.
It wasn’t a case of hate at first sight, but it was damn close.
“Is that his real name,” I asked Ghost.
“Yes, it is.”
I puckered my lips thoughtfully, and then asked, “So he’s a local?”
“A local?” Ghost looked puzzled before snorting softly and breaking into a thin grin. “A local. Yes, from your point of view, Geharis Arnval is a local. In other words, a native of this universe.”
I leaned back as I sat on the bed, and used my arms to support my weight. “What’s his deal?”
“You may have discerned by now that he is not entirely human.”
“Yeah, his aura is incomplete.” Remembering what his lifeforce looked like, I now wondered if I’d read it wrong. Sitting up straight, I slowly crossed my arms once more under my breasts hidden beneath the bathrobe. “His aura was incomplete, but thinking about it now, I guess it was more like it was weak in some places while strong in others.”
I was having trouble describing what I’d seen around Arnval, and it annoyed me a little.
However, Ghost appeared to accept my observation and said, “Geharis Arnval was born with a rare genetic defect. He was born without fully formed arms or legs.”
After gasping involuntarily, I stared wide eyed and wordlessly at Ghost.
He gave me subtle nod as he looked down at me. “Because of this, he has used prosthetics almost his entire life, replacing them with newer models as he grew from childhood into manhood.”
Ghost chuckled and I sulked.
“Why are you laughing?” I grumbled at him.
“Are you feeling sympathy for your antagonist?”
“I’m not heartless, Ghost,” I answered with an offended tone.
“No, you are most assuredly not heartless, Princess.” Ghost looked as though he wanted to say more, but then appeared to change his mind. “Tell me. In your eyes what stands out the most about him?”
“He’s an asshole,” I replied bluntly.
Ghost sighed. “Allow me to rephrase that. When you were exchanging blows with him, what caught your attention the most?”
I scowled faintly at him. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
“My bad, Princess.”
I felt like I was being asked to jump tracks, so I mulled the question over for a handful of seconds. “His speed. He’s much faster than anyone I’ve fought until now.” I rolled my eyes and rocked my head from shoulder to shoulder. “I know, I know. I’ve only fought the Gun Queen and that wasn’t hand to hand. But he felt faster than a Gun Princess. Faster than a mechanical.” I stopped rocking my head and grimaced as I asked, “Does that make sense?”
“Perfect sense. And you are indeed quite correct.”
“You’ve been saying that a lot lately.”
“Indeed.” I waved a hand about. “Indeed this. Indeed that. Indeed Princess.” I folded my arms again. “Find another word.”
Ghost’s lips drew a thin line across his face. “As you wish, Princess. You are undeniably correct.”
“Better,” I said with nod. “Go on.”
Again, his lips drew into a thin line. “Because Arnval has been using prosthetics for the vast majority of his life, since his days as a toddler in a pram, his mind has developed rather uniquely.”
“You mean he can keep up with the speed of his prosthetics.”
Ghost looked like a teacher pleasantly surprised by his star pupil. “Indeed.”
He pressed on. “As you surmised, his mind is able to utilize the speed of his prosthetics.”
I sighed then briefly pointed at my head. “So he can overclock?”
“Apparently so. But his ability extends to his motor controls. You could say that his mind has developed an extremely streamlined process of operating his artificial limbs. However, I understand that it was also helped along by generous scientific research.”
“Scientific research?” I then realized what he meant and sat up ramrod straight. “He was experimented on?”
“Indeed—I mean, he was improved.”
“Improved? Oh wonderful.” Narrowing my eyes a little, I asked, “So who worked on him? Was it the military?”
“No. It was the Telos Corporation. Geharis Arnval was serving as a security officer at the time. When his potential was discovered, a division of the Telos Corporation worked on him—as you phrased it—and augmented his ability by using cybernetics—wetware—to increase the efficiency between his cerebellum, spine, and biomechanical limbs.”
“To see how far they could raise his abilities. To push the envelope, so to speak.”
“How lovely.” I cocked my head at Ghost. “And how did he feel about being augmented?”
“I do not know. You would have to ask him.”
“Yeah. I think I’ll take a rain check on that.” I cocked my head a little more. “Ghost, should I be worried about him?”
“Worried? In what manner?”
“He wants to fight me.”
“Yes, I gained that impression as well.”
“Well, he wasn’t trying to hide it.” I straightened my head on my neck, and folded my arms a little tighter under my bosom. “My gut’s telling me I’ll have to fight him sooner or later. But I don’t think I’m ready for him.”
Ghost’s expression became unreadable though I can say it also seemed a little distant.
“Are you considering facing Arnval in combat?”
“I’d rather not. But I get the feeling I don’t have a choice.” I unfolded my arms and punched a fist into an open palm. “What I mean is, I don’t think Arnval will give me a choice.”
“You seem rather eager.”
I blinked as my breath caught in my lungs. “Huh?”
“As I said, you seem eager.”
Slowly, I lowered my hands to my lap. “Is that how I sound to you?”
Ghost gave me a troubled smile. “Are you looking forward to facing him?”
I stared at him and didn’t reply.
On some level, I felt offended by what his remark implied about me. On another, I was annoyed for giving him that impression. But on a deeper level within my psyche and closer to my heart, I was disappointed to know that some part of me wanted to fight Arnval though it wasn’t because I wanted to test myself against him.
I dropped my gaze to the soft creamy colored carpet covering the bedroom floor, and searched my thoughts and feelings for a while before breaking my silence.
“Honestly, I don’t know why I feel that way.” I shook my head slowly, feeling my hair sway and brush my cheeks. “I don’t remember feeling this way before when I was Ronin Kassius. I never looked for a fight. I always avoided confrontations as much as possible. But maybe being inside Mirai has released my true personality.” I slowly raised my head to look up at Ghost. “But I can tell you honestly that even if I seem eager to face Arnval, I’d rather not fight him at all. This is something he chose by standing in my way. However, I’m not going to run away from it. And I don’t plan on going around him either. I’m going to go through him.”
As the declaration left my lips, I was startled to notice that my wet hair falling around my face was raven dark.
Reaching up, I fingered my long dark locks.
Why am I still in Mirai Mode?
Did this mean that I felt endangered? Was my subconscious warning me not to let my guard down while aboard the Sanreal Citadel?
Feeling Ghost’s gaze on me, I looked into his eyes.
Despite my aforementioned concerns, I once again pondered if he was merely an image projected into my mind. At that thought, I did something I hadn’t done before, faintly surprised the idea had never crossed my mind until now since it was so obvious.
I looked for his shadow…and found it.
What? What the Hell?
Shock spread through me, catching my breath and locking my body rigid.
I remained that way even after Ghost abruptly looked off in the direction of the bedroom’s open doorway and announced, “Princess, you have company.”
“Wh—what?” Distracted, it was the most I could utter because inwardly my thoughts were scattered to the four winds.
How can he have a shadow? Wait—it could be nothing more than part of the projection. Maybe it’s to add to his realism. Yes, it’s natural to have a shadow but only if you’re real.
My eyes widened and I stared at the floor in a hurry.
Only if you’re real….
My chest tightened in apprehension that bordered on fear.
Only if he’s real.
Only if I’m real….
“Y—yes?” I jerked stiffly upright and stared wide eyed at Ghost, unable to hide my anxious feelings. “Wh—what? What is it?”
Ghost regarded me with undisguised concern. “Princess, are you feeling all right? If not—?”
I pushed myself up off the bed, feeling my legs tremble beneath me. “I’m fine.” At his questioning look, I hurriedly added. “Ghost, I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s just a lot to take in. Okay? I’m just finding it hard to keep up.”
I didn’t know if he believed me, and honestly, I wasn’t in a state to argue with him if he didn’t, so it was a relief when he accepted my reply with a subtle nod.
Taking a couple of quick breaths, I abruptly remembered what he’d said earlier. “Ghost. Who—who’s coming?”
Again he regarded me with concern, then glanced at the open doorway. “The head maid, Kyoko, and her entourage are at the suite’s entrance.”
My gut tightened at mention of her name, and with a sudden sense of urgency, I struggled to bring my thoughts into order. Giving myself something to focus on, I ensured the fabric ribbon securing the overlapping ends of the bathrobe together was properly tied. Then, after a glance at the bunny slippers lying at the foot of a wall, I strode out of the bedroom as though I was fleeing it.
I hoped that Ghost would mistake my behavior as a knee jerk reaction to Kyoko, but I wasn’t going to wager on it.
Unlike most men, Ghost wasn’t oblivious and knew how to read the mood.
Wait—isn’t that the opposite of how girls think of guys in general?
Striding barefoot into the living area, I arrived a few moments before the troublesome maid stepped into the luxurious suite. When she came into view, Kyoko smiled at the sight of me in the bathrobe, but her eyes narrowed ever so faintly at my bare feet. Then she stared at my wet hair with displeasure.
“Now that simply won’t do,” she declared unhappily, and then snapped her fingers.
Within moments, a trio of animal eared maids entered the living room and spread out behind Kyoko.
“Girls,” she announced. “We have work to do.”
I hastily took a step back. “Wait a moment. What the Hell do you mean by work?”
I could see all of them clearly within my wide field-of-vision, so I kept my eyes on the head maid as she replied, “Obviously, we need to do something about your appearance. To put it frankly, you look terrible. Don’t you know how care for your hair?”
“No, I don’t,” I snapped back. “If it’s a problem I’ll just chop it off.”
Kyoko stared at me aghast. “Are you serious?”
“You bet your ass I am!”
She palmed her forehead and sighed heavily. “We simply cannot have that.”
With a wave, she gestured for the maids to approach me. However, the three girls remained behind Kyoko.
Perplexed, she regarded them over her shoulders. “What are you waiting for?”
The maids shared frightened glances before shaking their heads in unison at her.
I realized the girls were afraid of me, and Kyoko must have arrived at the same conclusion because she groaned in deep disappointment while slowly shaking her head at them. “Very well. Toilet duty for all three of you.”
The girls gaped briefly before breaking into relieved smiles.
“Thank you, Miss Kyoko,” they cried out happily, then fled from me and the suite at a run.
I snorted as I watched them leave. “Good help is so hard to find. Isn’t it, Kyoko-chan?”
Facing me with a melancholy expression, she cheerlessly murmured, “Never send a girl to do a woman’s job.”
I don’t know why, but the change in her mood made me feel unexpectedly guilty. But I hid it behind a mocking smirk, and planted my hands on my hips. “So what are you going to bribe me with this time?”
For a long while, Kyoko did nothing more than look at me with an increasingly sad expression that in turn made me more and more uncomfortable.
Eventually, I blurted out, “If you have something to say then say it.”
The sadness on her face deepened. “You are such a beautiful girl.”
I choked then stuttered, “Wh—what?”
“Do you not care for your appearance?”
Her question made my thoughts stumble and catch themselves. “Ah…it’s…it’s not that I don’t care—”
“Do you truly hate being a girl?”
That question brought my thoughts to an unexpected standstill.
I stared at Kyoko blankly, unable to muster or dredge up an answer.
I even forgot to breathe, reminded to do so only when I autonomously swallowed the saliva building up in my mouth. But while the gears in my mind had been brought to a grinding, screeching halt, the question continued to bounce off the inside walls of my head.
Did I truly hate being a girl?
Slowly, as my thoughts started back up and the gears resumed turning over, I began to ponder the question with greater clarity.
Did I hate being a girl?
The answer I eventually arrived at was that I didn’t have an answer.
I simply didn’t know because I hadn’t lived long enough to give the question proper consultation.
I had spent the recent years of my life terrified to wake up and discover that I had become a girl. And now that it had happened, though not in the way I had imagined, I had been determined to return to my life as a human male, though it was impossible for me to assume my previous existence as Ronin Kassius. But even that was a fallacy since I had never lived as Ronin Kassius. Mirai was not Ronin Kassius transformed into a girl. The two were completely unrelated to each other except for one element – her memories belonged to Ronin Kassius. And that lead back to the fallacy that I was Ronin Kassius, something I continued to struggle with after I’d decided to cut ties with my past or rather the memories of my past because it was a past that didn’t belong to me.
To put it simply, my situation was psychological nightmare that would take many, many pages to explain, and even then I doubted it could be fully explained as in many respects I felt as though I was chasing my own shadow.
It was my own version of the liar’s paradox.
Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but you get my meaning.
However, any attempt to address the question – did I hate being a girl – was complicated by not having experienced life as a girl for longer than three days, and most of that time was spent trying to stay alive.
While in harried thought, I stared distantly through Kyoko.
I half expected the young woman to hurry me along for an answer, but instead she stood still and waited silently. It was that silence and her melancholy appearance that ultimately drove me to reply in a weak, uncertain voice that disappointed me.
I gave her the only answer I had. “I’m just not ready to accept being a girl.”
The pensive sadness she wore faded into a thoughtful gaze. Her voice was unexpectedly gentle when she asked, “Why not?”
I hesitated for a second, confused by the change in her and suspicious of her new approach. Yet, I answered her nonetheless. “I refuse to believe this is my fate—that there’s no choice for me other than to live as a girl.”
“Really?” Now she made an expression of open curiosity. “I thought it was because you were afraid.”
My emotions darkened in an instant and I glared at her. “Afraid of what?”
Kyoko stepped up to me.
She was shorter than me despite wearing shoes, and yet I felt as though I was looking up at her. That didn’t bother me nearly as much as having her step into my personal space.
This woman—what is she thinking?
Facing me from a foot or so away, Kyoko searched my face and then met my dark stare with a quiet, penetrating gaze that complemented her calm voice. “You’re afraid that you might enjoy being a girl.”
My glare hardened for a heartbeat, but Kyoko’s gaze pierced through it.
“Am I wrong?” she asked.
“That’s bullshit,” I growled at her but my protest sounded weak to me.
“Prove me wrong.” At that, she offered me the bundle of clothes she’d been holding onto all this time. “Open yourself up to life as Isabel val Sanreal, do it for a week, and then stand before me and tell me that I’m wrong.”
“I don’t need a week. I can tell you right now—”
“No,” she interjected calmly. “Give me your answer when you’ve experienced life as Isabel for a week or maybe even a month. Not before then. Not before you’ve given her existence an opportunity to live.”
She was telling me what I had already realized for myself: to give Isabel a chance.
Yet I stubbornly refused to concede or consider the notion. Why? Because in a way she had hit the nail on the head. I was afraid. I may not have ever desired to be a girl, but I had lived in terror of becoming one and it was that fear – coupled with my unrealistic desire to return to my life as Ronin Kassius – that effectively held me back.
But that wasn’t what I said to her.
After swallowing with some difficulty, I took another deep breath that made my body shudder when I released it. “Why? Why is it so important to everyone that I give up on my past?”
Kyoko gazed silently at me for a long, long while before asking me in a gentle, tender tone that sounded almost motherly, or at least how I would have expected a mother to sound when comforting her daughter.
“Isabel, don’t you wish to find happiness?”
Her voice and words were like a warm breeze passing through me, brushing against my heart and making it tremble. Yet my throat and chest grew even tighter, and I found myself unable to reply as I watched her smile at me with kindness of the like I hadn’t experienced for such a long, long time.
“Isabel, you don’t have to discard your past. I’m certainly not telling you to. Your past makes you the person you are now. Some people will tell you that you only need to look forward but that isn’t true. People that forget or deny their past—people that choose not to learn from its lessons—fail to grow. They make the same mistakes over and over, believing in the lie that history never repeats. That the next time things will be better. But that isn’t true. In order for it to be better, something has to change.” She paused for a quiet breath and then said, “Isabel, you’ve changed. You’re not the person you were before. But don’t you want to know about the person you could become?”
I felt helpless before her.
She had stepped through the wall I’d consciously and subconsciously labored to build up around me – a wall that had held back Ghost, Straus, and Erina. She had done so because something inside me and something I sensed in her aura convinced me that her sentiments toward me were sincerely without malice. Because of this, I saw myself standing on the edge of a precipice while facing Kyoko across a bottomless crevasse.
What would I find if I stepped toward her? Would I fall and be lost? Or would I cross the abyss and be saved? If not saved, would I nonetheless find a measure of inner peace on the other side? As such, would it be the first step in accepting my new life as Isabel?
I trembled before the abyss, unable to step forward yet unable to step away either.
Kyoko said nothing and continued to regard me warmly.
There was literally no trace of the young woman who had bribed me earlier so that I would take a bubble bath. And the melancholy she’d expressed was nothing more than a memory.
My hands clenched into fists.
Why do you look at me that way?
My fingernails dug into my palms.
Why? You don’t know me. I’m nothing to you. We’re not family or friends. We’re nothing to each other?
I closed my eyes.
So why? Why do you look at me that way? Why? When not even my mother ever looked at me—?
I gasped softly and opened my eyes.
That’s right. My mother…never looked at me…the way she looked at Erina.
I relaxed my fingers, and the pain in my palms faded quickly but now I experienced a painful emptiness within my chest.
Why am I remembering this now? No…why had I forgotten that about my mother?
Erina had always been her favorite child. It was something that I had come to understand even at a young age, and perhaps I had chosen to box those memories because they were painful to me. Perhaps, I had even acclimated myself overlook the occasions when my mother bestowed her affections upon Erina while ignoring me. And as my mother denied me, I chose to deny my mother’s existence. In short, I began to isolate her from my thoughts and feelings at an early age.
Did I cry when she and my father left Erina and I behind? I can’t remember. What did I feel back then? Did I feel anything at all? Was I glad that she was gone?
Blinking slowly, my focus gradually returned to the present and I found myself meeting Kyoko’s eyes.
She had continued to watch me kindly, and so I ran my gaze over the orange aura of her lifeforce as it glowed strongly around her. But I was thinking of my mother, pondering what I would see in her aura if I were to chance upon it with Mirai’s ability. Then I realized I was being foolish. I wasn’t Ronin Kassius and Mirai had no mother. And yet, while my mind rationalized in one direction, my heart pined in another, so it was difficult for me not to feel something when I thought of her.
Kyoko had said there was no need for me to discard my past, but I wondered if my declaration to cut myself off was premature, somewhat of a knee jerk reaction to learning that there was no going back. I had also voiced my intention to move forward, but as my argument with Ghost in the bathroom had demonstrated, I hadn’t moved forward at all.
So was my past holding me back? If so, then how could I expect to move forward if I didn’t shed it? And this brought me back full circle to my unwillingness to consider a life as Isabel val Sanreal because I was holding onto the hope that I could go back.
“Nothing’s changed,” I whispered.
Kyoko’s eyes showed veiled confusion. “Isabel?”
“I turn it over and over in my head, everything that’s happened, how I feel, my circumstances, and I come back to the same place. And because of that nothing changes, and I’m stuck.”
Kyoko briefly pressed her lips into a thin line as she studied me with thoughtful eyes. “Why is that?”
“Because I’m afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid of being a girl. Afraid of living as one. I spent so much time afraid of turning into a girl, that now I can’t deal with it. I don’t want to be a girl, but I’m afraid that the longer I spend as Isabel, the less I will want to go back—even though I know I can’t go back. But it all feels like a paradox. I’m afraid of being a girl, but the truth is that this body has always been a girl. It’s only that she has the memories of Ronin Kassius. I have the memories of being a boy, yet I was never a boy. And I want to go back to being to a boy, but again, I was never a boy so it’s not possible.”
“Then what will you do?”
I shrugged, and a feeling of utter helplessness washed through me. My voice broke into a hoarse whisper. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do….”
Then my throat and chest grew tight and I couldn’t say anything else, and a few moments later I was crying tears of despair before a stranger.
And before I knew it, that stranger was holding onto me tightly, and I heard her whisper into my ear.
“I’m sorry, Isabel. I’m so sorry.”
What did she have to be sorry about? Bribing me? I should have laughed off her apology, but I couldn’t.
Instead, I found myself reaching out to her, and embracing her as she embraced me.
I held onto her, because without her I didn’t believe my legs could support my weight.
But the truth was that I clung to this stranger because I needed the kindness and understanding she offered me.
The warmth radiating from her body flowed into me, warming me, and it comforted my heart.
Gradually my tears ebbed and I began to feel a little more at ease.
I hadn’t resolved my situation, and I was far from at peace with myself, but I was no longer in anguish.
I have no idea how long I cried, or for how long she held me, but it was long enough for my tears to soak the shoulder of her uniform.
“Sorry,” I whispered and though I tried to pull away, Kyoko continued to embrace me, and I realized I lacked the strength of will to break free. And part of me wanted to continue drawing comfort from her presence.
When Kyoko drew back she continued holding onto me as she studied me from up close.
“Feel better?” she asked me gently.
After probing my feelings for a short while, I gave her a shallow nod. “Yes….”
Kyoko smiled up at me, then eased back a few more centimeters. “That’s good.”
I studied the caring, motherly expression on her face, once again unable to reconcile the young woman before me with the Kyoko who’d cornered me not long ago.
Had it all been an act? Was this her true personality? Or was this the act?
I realized that I didn’t want to find out. I was afraid to know who was the real Kyoko-chan.
But why show me this side of hers now?
To that I needed an answer, and so I asked, “Why? Why are you being kind to me?”
Kyoko’s eyes widened and a moment later she smiled at me with intense sadness. “Isabel, I’m sorry for the way I treated you.”
My mouth fell open slowly, and I exhaled softly in surprise.
At my reaction, Kyoko laughed remorsefully. “The truth is, I expected you to be a difficult child, and I thought I knew how to deal with you. But I was wrong.”
“I’m not difficult?”
She laughed softly and it carried less regret. “Oh, you are indeed difficult. Make no mistake, you are a handful. But I approached things from the wrong angle. Despite knowing what I knew of you, I didn’t try to understand you. I guess I’m out of practice.”
“I don’t understand,” I admitted to her.
Kyoko held back for a moment before answering me. “Arnval spoke the truth. I know this may sound surprising but I know what you’ve been through, Isabel.”
“How do you know about me? Why do you know about me?”
“Because Master Sanreal asked me to help him with you.”
“Why would he do that?”
Kyoko smiled sadly. “Because he doesn’t know how to deal with you.”
Initially, I was thrown off by this revelation. Then I thought of Clarisol. I knew that Clarisol val Sanreal was his daughter, but I didn’t know what kind of relationship she and her father had. However, rather than mention Clarisol, I chose not to reveal what I did know.
When Kyoko spoke again she didn’t sound as though she’d noticed my troubled thoughts. Then again, she may have attributed it to me having difficulty digesting her explanation and that wasn’t far from the truth.
“I have served Master Sanreal for a long, long time. And in that time he has grown to trust me, and in some respects he has come to depend on me. And so he asked me to help him with you, and thus he entrusted me with the knowledge of who you are. Because of this I learnt of how much you’d suffered, but I only had an inkling of the intense turmoil within you. I didn’t know how much you were hurting. I didn’t realize you were putting up a brave front. Had I known, had I realized it sooner, I would have stepped in. I would have requested to see you, to meet you, and to listen to you. Instead, I made a poor choice that I deeply regret. I did nothing, and then I treated you wrongly.”
I couldn’t help thinking how differently the situation would have turned out had Kyoko greeted me at the park rather than Erina – rather than Arnval.
Shaking her head slowly, Kyoko continued softly. “What was done to you wasn’t fair. And since then you haven’t been treated fairly either. I should have treated you properly. I should have shown you the kindness and respect you deserve—the kindness, understanding, and respect you’ve been denied. For failing to do so, I’m sincerely sorry, Isabel. I’m so sorry. I should have seen the signs. I should have known better. Yet I missed them.” She bowed her head. “Please, please forgive me, Isabel….”
I struggled to close my mouth, then swallowed with difficulty as pained feelings welled up to flood my chest and choke my throat.
This young woman was nothing to me, and I was nothing to her. But what I felt now, perhaps radiated along with her aura was genuine kindness that was painful to bear.
This is the first time I’ve felt this from someone since I woke up as Mirai.
Then I realized I was wrong. I had felt kindness before but back then I’d also felt sadness, sorrow, and frustration fueled by helplessness. Back then I was intent on surviving and not so much on the people around me until it was too late.
Mat, I’m sorry for failing you. I promised Clarisol I would protect you and Shirohime, and yet I failed you all.
Since returning to Ar Telica, I had been caught up in one unexpected event after another, thus I’d spent little time thinking of Mat and the platinum haired beauty. I had no idea how I would react when I saw them again. But now wasn’t the time to ruminate over what our reunion would be like.
I needed to focus on what was in front of me, and I needed to regain control over my composure.
After breathing in deeply a handful of times, I felt my emotions retreat a little, and my throat and chest loosened up. But I wasn’t able to say anything, and thus I found myself listening to Kyoko’s subdued voice.
“Isabel, I know this may sound as though I’m prodding you down a certain path, but I believe you’re fighting too hard.”
What did she mean?
“You’re trying to find answers where there may be none. Conversely, you’re trying to find answers that may only come with time.” Kyoko looked pensively up at the ceiling. “That is why I suggested that you spend a week, or a month, living as Isabel. To find the answers. To face your fear. But in all honestly, I said that because I just want you to live.”
I shook my head slowly, relieved I’d recovered enough of my voice to say, “But it’s not that simple for me.”
“No, it isn’t,” she agreed softly. “But I believe you may find the answers you seek, and you may find your path only by accumulating new experiences. I’m not saying change your goal. But for now, why not simply live.”
“I’m not just Isabel. I’m also Mirai. And I’m a Gun Princess.”
The young maid nodded. “Yes, you are.”
“So my life isn’t exactly normal because I’m not a normal girl.”
“Yes, I know,” she acknowledged with another nod. “But right now you’re living in a closed system. If nothing changes, you’ll continue running in circles. You need new experiences, Isabel. Only then can you really be certain of what you want. And even if you can’t go back, maybe you’ll find another path. Maybe not even as Isabel val Sanreal. Maybe as someone else.”
I understood what she was telling me, and I realized that I would eventually have to take that leap of faith. It may not lead me down the path I believed that I desired. It may not even lead me down the path that I feared. I could find myself on a very different road. But I needed to take that first step.
Kyoko pressed on. “But as the saying goes, all good things in time.” She paused before adding, “And one thing at a time.” With that, she released me, took a step back, then once again offered me the bundle she held in her hands. “Your clothes, Isabel.”
One thing at a time, I repeated inwardly as I glanced down at the clothes in Kyoko’s hands. Despite recognizing them, I nonetheless asked, “Is that my uniform?”
Offering me a gentle nod, she answered, “Yes, it is. It’s been cleaned and is ready for you to wear.” Then she half smiled. “Or would you prefer a maid’s dress? I have just the right headband for you.”
Shaking my head weakly, I replied, “No. No, thank you. But why my uniform?”
“Truthfully, I believed you’d be more comfortable in it since this is what you were wearing upon arrival.”
Comfortable, yes. But did I welcome it? No. However, that wasn’t what I said as I pointed at the uniform neatly folded into a bundle. “What about my shoes?”
“A new pair is ready for you. I’ll fetch it shortly.”
Visibly reluctant, I took the bundle from her and looked it over, noticing the new item she had included. “Stockings?”
Dark stockings of the kind the girls would wear with the academy’s winter uniform.
Kyoko smiled at me. “It’s a little chilly out there.”
I frowned at her, the bundle of clothing, then back at Kyoko. “When do I meet Phelan Sanreal?”
“Are you ready to meet him?” she asked me, her smile fading a little and her tone laced with concern that unexpectedly made my heart twinge.
But I pushed it aside as I searched the rest of my feelings, and then admitted, “No, I can’t say that I am. But it’s not like I can choose otherwise. I was brought here because he wants to meet me.”
“That is true. But I’m certain he can wait until you are ready for him.”
Again studying the clothes I now held in my hands, I hesitated and then wet my lips with the tip of my tongue. “That’s the problem. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready…so I’d rather get it over with.”
“Then let’s go see him as soon as you are dressed.”
Lifting my gaze, I met her eyes with uncertainty and apprehension. “Now?”
“When you’re dressed.” She stepped closer and reached up touch my dark hair. “You have such lovely hair, so why don’t we do something about it first?”
Rather than lead me to the bedroom or bathroom, she waited patiently for me decide. However, as the seconds ticked by and I failed to move, Kyoko nodded faintly and offered me an understanding smile.
“Well then. I’ll wait for you outside while you get dressed, Isabel. If you change your mind, let me know.”
After gently squeezing my arms, Kyoko turned toward the suite’s entrance.
Then quite suddenly I saw something that stole my breath away.
My left hand was reaching out for her, but my feet were rooted to the living room floor.
Wh—what? What was that?
It happened so quickly that I doubted my eyes.
What did I just see?
Arrested by my cry, Kyoko had stopped and then half turned to look back at me. “Isabel…?”
I lowered my hand, and blinked quickly as though clearing my eyes.
Was that real?
For a fraction of a heartbeat – for one fleeting instant – Kyoko’s lifeforce had radiated with a brilliant golden aura.
Did I imagine that?
Concentrating my vision on the young woman watching me anxiously, I searched for it again.
Maybe it was all in my head….
“Isabel?” Kyoko walked back to me, and held my face in her palms. “Isabel, what’s wrong?”
With her hands warming up my cheeks, I looked into her dark brown eyes.
But if it was real, then why would her aura change?
My heart was pounding so forcefully in my chest it was making my body tremble. Surely she could feel it as she cupped my face with her hands.
“Isabel, tell me what’s wrong?” Her eyes moved slightly left and right as they looked into mine. “I’m here. Talk to me.”
What could I tell her? That I could see the aura of her lifeforce? That for a moment it had inexplicably changed color? The problem was that I suspected she would believe me. She was a maid but a mysterious one, and she knew a great deal about me because she had Sanreal’s trust. I had opened myself up to her, but a little voice in the back of my head warned me about being too forthcoming.
“My hair…,” I whispered.
Kyoko’s gaze felt palpable on my face. “Your hair?”
“Would you…help me…with my hair?”
She blinked very slowly and I sensed she was confused by my abrupt change of her heart. However, she was soon smiling contently. “Of course, Isabel. Of course I’ll help you.”
I started to return her smile, but the memory of her aura flashing golden for a mere moment sent a shiver trickling down my spine.
Who is this young woman? Isn’t she a Simulacra? Her aura is like an orange sunrise, but why would it change? Or is there something wrong with Mirai?
The stark possibility that something was wrong with this body frightened me, and another creeping shiver made my body tremble.
Thankfully, Kyoko had released me before then and stepped back to study me quietly for a few seconds. When she spoke again, she sounded oddly uncertain.
“Isabel, would you like to visit your sister?”
I was still distracted by my worries so it took me longer than otherwise to respond. “My sister? You mean Erina?”
“Doctor Kassius has regained consciousness, and she is doing quite well. Would you like to see her? I’m certain Master Sanreal would understand if you wish to visit her before meeting with him.”
Erina was the question I never asked Ghost because he’d assumed the lead. Ghost had accurately surmised the questions I had in mind, but not in the correct order, and ultimately we were interrupted by Kyoko and her maids. But having heard that she was recovering well, I was faced with making a choice, and in the end my decision was based on how I was feeling rather than a logical or rational line of thinking.
That is, I went with my heart and not my head.
“No.” I shook my head firmly as I answered Kyoko. “I’ll see her afterwards.”
I simply didn’t feel the urge to see Erina. She was on my To Do list but getting to her could wait. Meeting with Sanreal was of a higher priority.
“Are you sure?” Kyoko asked.
“Is she in good hands?” was my reply.
Kyoko nodded faintly. “Yes, she is.”
I gave her a firm nod. “Then I’m sure.”
A look of sadness flittered across Kyoko face, but she acquiesced to my decision.
“As you wish, Isabel.”
As though closing the door on the matter – for now at least – Kyoko turned sideways and waved a hand gently toward the bedroom.
“Shall we then?”
Thank you for your patience with this series.
For those of you who are new to the series and would like to read or purchase Books 1 and 2, the links are provided below:
Currently working on Chapter 9.
Thank you for sticking with this series through its ups and down.
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