Happy New Year
– I –
Sanreal’s gaze swept over me from head to toes, then back up again.
I chose to keep my focus on his face, though with Mirai’s preternaturally wide field-of-vision I could see all of him in great clarity
For a long, long while we both stared at each other, until Sanreal finally grew visibly perplexed.
With his brow furrowed and eyes crinkled, he made a handful of attempts to break his silence before eventually finding his voice.
“Why…are you dressed like that?”
And those were the first words he ever spoke to me.
But let’s press rewind and back up a little.
After I used the excuse of having Kyoko help me with my hair so as to hide my shock at seeing her aura glow golden, I found myself taking a shower…with my eyes closed most of the time. Apparently, I’d allowed my hair to remain wet for too long, and so I had to wash it all over again, this time using a plethora of conditioners and shampoos that left my hair as fragrant as a rose garden. Next was getting it dried, brushed, untangled, and so forth until it hung silky smooth over my shoulders and down my back. I could have modelled for a shampoo commercial because my hair visibly shone with vibrancy. It was like a brilliantly dark waterfall shimmering down my back.
I have to admit, Mirai has awesome hair.
I also have to admit that after all was said and done, I found myself tossing it about like I remembered those attractive hair models would do.
And lastly, I must admit that I needed a lot more practice.
However, up until now all was going well. True, there had been an unexpected delay of more than an hour – Kyoko advised me to grow accustomed to such delays – but everything was progressing smoothly…until disaster struck.
Would you like to take a guess? No? Very well, then I’ll tell you.
My uniform no longer fit me. Why? Because someone with bunny ears volunteered on hands and knees to wash it – in order to avoid bathroom duty – and after she was done, my uniform was a couple sizes too small.
As I have mentioned frequently, Mirai is rather voluptuous.
Thus, after I squeezed into the dark blouse, I heard a very audible rip down the front, and my summer uniform wasn’t fit for attending school anymore. The only thing it was suitable for was the cover of a porn holovid featuring high school girls in compromising situations.
Oh, the skirt ripped a few moments later, completing my porn actress appearance.
The only thing the bunny maid hadn’t shrunk was my underwear.
Alas, after Kyoko promised to drag Penelope over hot coals, she resorted to Plan B.
And so I found myself a while later before a flummoxed Phelan Sanreal Erz Novis, the two of us standing on a paved path running through the verdant garden that occupied much of the inner courtyard, while I was wearing a maid outfit complete with white stockings, black shoes with butterfly buckles, a frilly apron, ruffled blouse, and short skirt.
Did it draw Sanreal’s attention? Well, he’s a man, isn’t he – though his self-control was admirable, his gaze pausing only briefly at my legs, the hem of my short skirt, and my chest before settling on my face.
“Why…are you dressed like that?”
I cleared my throat and wondered how best to reply.
Honestly, I was feeling strangely detached from reality as I stood a few feet away from him in the midst of the beautiful garden with schools of fish swimming its gurgling, burbling streams, around stone islands, under quaint arched bridges, and past countless flower beds and bushes. Because of its immense size and numerous winding paths, a visitor could spend a good deal of time wandering through the villa’s central garden.
Kyoko had brought me here after she was satisfied with my appearance, having fussed over it for almost an hour, especially my hair before finally putting in two butterfly pins to keep it in place. I was decidedly numb by then. Staring at my reflection in the full body mirror, and seeing myself looking like a maid that belonged in a fantasy RPG tavern serving drinks to rowdy, drunken patrons, had broken my stubborn spirit. Despite everything I had said to Ghost and Kyoko, I had essentially surrendered without a fight. Perhaps later I would rant and rave and tear off the dress, but for now I had succumbed to Kyoko’s will.
If I thought of her as a Force Majeure, then perhaps my current state of mind and dress could be forgiven.
Or was the bunny maid, Penelope, the real Force Majeure?
As I was saying earlier, Kyoko had brought me to the inner courtyard that harbored the central garden. With its sixty by sixty meters sides, the courtyard was large enough for the various streams, bridges, ponds, islands, bushes and so forth without the need to cram them together. In other words, it had spacious layout that made me forget I was standing in a tiny section of an immense vessel.
However, Kyoko had not introduced me to the man before. Instructing me to wait a short distance away, she had approached Sanreal, spoken to him in a hushed whisper that Mirai’s uncanny hearing failed to catch, and then returned to me.
“A word of warning. Be good. Be patient. And be on your best behavior.” With that she had left me behind and exited the garden.
After a few moments pondering what to do next, I had walked up to Phelan Sanreal Erz Novis, bringing us to where we were now.
Pursing my lips, I rummaged in my head for a simple way of explaining myself, then took a deep breath and explained, “I had a wardrobe malfunction.”
Sanreal’s gaze again swept over me, slowing at the usual places. “A wardrobe…malfunction?”
I made a tearing motion with my hands. “Rip.”
He turned away slowly and resumed what he’d been doing before my arrival – feeding the fish swimming in a nearby stream.
With my lips subconsciously pouting, I planted my hands on my hips and stared at the man who’d summoned me but was now ignoring me.
Phelan Sanreal Erz Novis was dressed in an outfit that was all about loose robes that came in a collection of greys, blacks, whites, and golds. Later, when I found the time to ask Kyoko about it, I would learn that Sanreal had acquired the antiquated dressing habits of an ancient people from a tiny island nation on Mother Earth. More specifically, they were the traditional dressing habits of the ancient Japanese feudal lords that consisted of various kimonos, a hakama, sandals and tabi socks.
When I asked her why, Kyoko would merely shrug and say, “He admires them.”
So while I was dressed like a Fantasy RPG tavern maid, Sanreal was clothed like an ancient feudal warlord from a distant past. Hidden beneath the loose clothing, it was hard to tell what his body shape was like but I did gauge he was broad shouldered, and I had the impression he took care of himself. Overall, I judged him to be aged in his fifties, with greying hair and the usual collection of frown lines. Studying him, I had the impression he was a handsome man in his younger years. That said, he had a distinguished, noble air about him. His eyes were dark and when he’d looked at me moments ago, they had projected a palpable, penetrating gaze that made them almost hard to meet.
But now he was ignoring me as he fed the fish in the stream.
At that point the sparks were lit, and my stubborn, rebellious fires blazed anew.
“Okay dokey. I’m off.” I waved at him as he tossed pellets into the stream, and spun with surprising grace on my one-inch heeled black shoes with their shining butterfly buckles. “Nice meeting you.”
And with that I walked away in the direction Kyoko had departed.
I wasn’t going to waste time waiting for this asshole to finish feeding his fish. What was next? Was he going to lie down and take a nap under the artificial sky?
“Yikes!” I skidded to a halt as Ghost materialized before me. “What”—I quickly lowered my voice to a whisper—“what are you doing here?”
Ghost sighed, folded his arms, and shook his head at me in veiled disappointment. “Princess, for as long as we have been acquainted, you rarely heed my advice or that of anyone else.”
I absorbed his remark then promptly denied. “That’s not true.”
“When your sister told you to wait, did you wait?”
“…eh…okay…but that was just one occasion….”
“Patience, as they say, is a virtue.”
I jumped mental tracks to keep up with him. “Are you telling me to wait for this guy?”
“I am telling you to exercise patience,” he answered coldly, so much so that I flinched as the recipient of his icy tone. “In this situation, patience is a well warranted virtue.”
“After everything I’ve been through, I'm supposed to wait—”
Ghost stepped up to me, bringing the gap between us down to centimeters. “Let me make something abundantly clear to you, Princess.”
I shied back a half step. “Wh—what…?”
Ghost pointed behind me. “That man over there holds your life in the palm of his hand.”
I started to retort but Ghost silenced me with an unforgiving stare that again made me flinch.
“It would be wise, Princess. Very wise to heed my warning. To heed Kyoko’s warning. Be good. Be patient. Behave. And for your sake and only your sake, take the attitude and arrogance you so freely throw around and cast it aside.”
I’d been thrown of my proverbial footing by his calm, cold, tirade that doused some of my fire and literally broke my stride. But now I bristled. “Cast it aside—?”
Ghost leaned into me. “Yes. Or stuff it down your bra. I do not care. Is that clear enough for you?”
Leaning back, I hissed at him like a wildcat. “What is with your attitude?”
“Do you want to die or live?”
My mouth fell open and all I could do was stare at him in disbelief.
Ghost sighed heavily as he straightened. But then he took me by surprise.
Dropping to both knees, he closed his eyes and bowed his head before me.
“Princes, you are incorrigible. You are rude, reckless, unpredictable, without regard, and stubborn when you should be flexible. If I ask you politely to do something for your own sake you ignore me. If I vent upon you in frustration, you act like the victim. But I will not be responsible for the outcome. Not on this occasion. From this point on, your fate is in your hands. Literally. But your life is in his hands as well. In other words, how you behave, how you respond, and what you say over the next few minutes will determine the rest of your life. And I am prohibited from helping you. If you think you can summon your Sarcophagus, that is not going to happen. If I override their control over your Sarcophagus, if I betray them, there will be a price to pay, one that I cannot afford.” He raised his head and looked up at me with a hint of desperation. “So do not ask of me what I cannot give.”
I swallowed twice to clear my throat, but when I tried to speak, Ghost cut off me.
“Knowing you, Princess, I sincerely fear for your future. So please, please, do not act off the cuffs of your blouse. I beg of your, Princess, because I cannot help you. I beg of you to not fly off the handle. I beg of you to demonstrate maturity beyond your years. For your sake….”
And with that so-called warning, Ghost vanished from my eyes, leaving me alone, speechless, and without the opportunity to retort or retaliate or ask him a single question.
I kept looking down at the paved path where Ghost had knelt before me.
On the one hand, there was Ghost’s cold, unpleasant attitude toward me.
On the other, there was the severity of his warning.
And then there was the sight of him quite clearly pleading with me.
All of it left me unable to move for a long, long while as my thoughts slowly recovered and a myriad collection of emotions swirled chaotically within me. Eventually, my feelings began to settle, and much of my composure returned. But it was still another minute before I was able to slowly turn around, and look in the direction of Phelan Sanreal who continued feeding the fish in the stream.
“That man over there holds your life in the palm of his hand.”
I swallowed then glanced down at myself.
So why the Hell am I dressed like this?
But then another question settled in the forefront of my mind.
Do they know that he’s reestablished contact with me? If so, then that means they know he’s been supporting me all this time since leaving the boat—since returning to Ar Telica.
I felt cold inside, a frigid cold that put pressure on my heart and lungs.
So what do I do? Act mature? Don’t lose my cool?
Considering everything that had happened to me so far, and how much I blamed them for my suffering, how was I supposed to contain myself?
I looked down at my hands then held them out before me. To my disbelief, they were unbelievably steady, and after a short while I lowered them down to my sides.
Sanreal wasn’t looking my way, but I didn’t believe for a heartbeat that he hadn’t noticed my recent behavior, and that proved to me that he knew about Ghost and I.
So the question was what to do now? How do I approach him? How do I deal with this situation? This man wasn’t Erina, or Straus, or Arnval. He certainly wasn’t Kyoko. If I heeded to Ghost’s wishes, I would need to do so from this very moment.
Patience is a virtue.
Remembering Ghost’s words, I swallowed again – it sounded loud in my ears – and then walked back toward Sanreal, coming to a tidy stop a few feet away from him.
Sanreal glanced down at the squarish metal container in his left hand. “I thought you were leaving.”
I wet my lips as I mulled over how best to reply. Eventually, all I said was, “No, sir.”
Perhaps I imagined it, but I was certain I’d seen Sanreal stiffen ever so slightly.
“I see….” He closed the container’s lid and slipped his hands into his loose sleeves. “Walk with me.”
I walked a couple of feet off his left shoulder as I followed him at a slow pace down at the path. I could hear the sounds of the flowing water, the crunching of gravel underfoot, and in the distance the sound of birds. In fact, when I glanced up I noticed a small flock of them flying over the house. And here and there a few insects flitted between flowers adorning the garden.
And I could also hear the sound of my heart, the pounding of which I blamed on Ghost.
But it was also in part due to finally meeting the man who ruled House Novis, and as much as I wanted to deny it, this man did indeed hold my fate in his hands.
I need to play my cards right. That’s what Ghost was trying to tell me in too many words. But I get it. I’m not that stupid.
The path lead past a low arched bridge spanning over the three-foot wide stream running beside us. Arriving at the junction, Sanreal paused and broke his silence. “How is your sister?”
My sister? I felt the need to snort but refrained myself at the last moment. I held no allusions that he didn’t already know Erina’s condition. But Ghost’s warning echoed in my head, so I chose my words carefully.
“I haven’t visited her, sir. But Miss Kyoko told me she is recovering well.” I swallowed my distaste before adding, “With your permission, I’d like to see her.”
Sanreal hadn’t looked at me once since we started walking. But facing in the direction of the bridge, he glanced at me over a shoulder. “By all means.”
He walked up to the pinnacle of the bridge, and I followed him after a moment or two. However, I kept my distance as I stood quietly on the bridge.
Sanreal removed his hands from the sleeves of his kimono jacket. Opening the metal container, he deposited a small quantity of the pellets onto the palm of one hand, then calmly tossed them out into the stream below the bridge.
“Revenant has been telling me a great deal about you.”
My heart skipped a beat and my innards clenched at his admission. The proverbial cat was out of the bag.
Sanreal emptied the rest of the container’s contents by upending it over the flower water. “Did you think we didn’t know?”
My heart had resumed its stride but it felt shaky in my chest. “Yes, I did.”
“I presume he had some words of advice for you?”
Sanreal snorted softly, and the empty container slipped into the folds of his kimono. “What did he tell you?”
“That my life is in your hands.”
He smiled and faintly nodded. “Your life is in my hands….” Sparing me a glance, he asked, “I’m surprised your containing yourself. You must be chomping at the bit to unleash all that pent up rage, anger, and resentment.”
I bit my lower lip, then replied candidly. “Ghost convinced me it was in my best interests to behave.”
“A wise Ghost he is. But…why call him Ghost? You already know his name is Revenant.”
My eyes widened as surprise and shock washed through me.
Sanreal was studying me carefully, not missing my reaction, and delivered the coup de grace. “You paid my daughter a visit.”
The cat wasn’t out of the bag. The whole tiger had jumped out.
I fumbled for how to respond, then realized it wasn’t a question, and yet I felt I had to say something. “Ghost took me to see her. In there, she told me about what happened to her when she was a child…and about her mother.”
A long moment went by, and then Sanreal calmly asked, “And?”
I found myself needing to take a very deep breath as I remembered the encounter, and the experience was still fresh in my mind. “I hated it.”
Sanreal expressed subtle surprise and turned a little more toward me. “You hated it?”
“I hate knowing what was done to her.” I sensed I’d clenched my hands, so I discreetly hid them behind my back. “I hate knowing that she’s living in that prison for a crime she didn’t commit. She’s suffering because of what others did to her. It’s not fair.”
It was true. What was done to Clarisol was something I couldn’t accept. In some respects, I found her situation and existence more difficult and pitiful than mine. I felt genuine sorrow for her because I understood that the Clarisol that had tormented me wasn’t the Clarisol living in a virtual prison.
“Would you trade places with her?”
It took me a few moments to understand what he was asking. I weighed my feelings and then resolutely answered, “No.”
Taking yet another deep breath, I surprised myself by taking a step toward him. “Why is she still in there?”
Sanreal’s eyebrows rose slightly then fell. “She is the noose around my neck.”
Unable to respond, all I managed for a while was to stare at him. “Why?”
“If we do not abide by the Empress’s will, she has the authority to wipe the last remnants of my daughter out of existence.”
I hesitated before asking, “What about the Simulacra of her?”
Sanreal snorted under his breath, and looked down at the stream flowing below the bridge. “They are…poor copies. Flawed copies. Hardly worth the mention or the resources spent on their manufacture.”
I was shocked by his words, but a part of my mind was puzzled by something. “Why? If she’s the noose around you, why didn’t you hand Project Mirai over to the Empress when she demanded it?”
He was quiet for short a while, his attention on the stream. “Because Kateopia did not use Clarisol as leverage. And because for all the anger she expressed, she never once gave me a reasonable answer as to why she wanted Project Mirai for herself. And so I stood my ground. My intentions to use Mirai as a host for my daughter were dashed, but I still held hope that you would fulfill the potential your sister fervently believes in. The potential she promised me.”
“The potential? My potential?”
“Mirai’s potential. Your sister believes Mirai carries within her the hope for a better humanity. And with it comes hope for my daughter.” He backed away from the bridge’s guardrail and then turned to face me. “But now I wonder if I was wrong about you.”
I felt suddenly uneasy.
His tone had grown distinctly cold and his dark eyes were like twin voids threatening to drain me of my soul.
I had to swallow twice to clear my throat that also felt strangled by his gaze. “…me…?”
“I have contemplated long and hard what to do with you. After observing your behavior since your awakening, I am convinced you are a failure. The mind of a teenage boy imprinted into the brain of a female Simulacra was a recipe for disaster. And I was right. But that was clearly Kateopia’s intention. To make an utter mess of Project Mirai. And to ruin the plans I had so carefully laid out for my daughter.”
“What about Erina’s plans for me?”
Sanreal huffed and glanced away. “Your sister’s plans haven’t changed. Only the mind inside Mirai changed. In fact, this situation suits her splendidly. A fact not lost on me.”
I realized with a sinking feeling to what he was alluding to – that he believed Erina had revealed the existence of Mirai to the Empress, something I had already considered with what little Ghost had revealed to me about the circumstances surrounding my existence. However, I kept that thought to myself.
Sanreal continued after seemingly giving me a moment to absorb his statement. “That leaves me with a problem. I cannot dispose of you, but you’re worth nothing to me.”
“One of the conditions Kateopia imposed on us – on me – was that I make no attempt to dispose of you. I don’t know why, but she seems to have taken an inexplicable interest in you. To that end, she guaranteed that she would not harm Clarisol. She even promised me something in return.”
“That if you were to win the Gun Princess Royale and be crowned Empress, she would release Clarisol from her imprisonment.”
I felt myself sway and hastily reached out of the bridge’s stone handrail.
Sanreal was shaking his head at me slowly. “And so you’ve become my unexpected hope.”
Yes, but what did that mean for me.
“And so I’ve considered my options and decided on the safest course of action. One that guarantees you won’t be causing us anymore trouble.”
I felt my heart abruptly hammer inside my chest as I recalled Straus’s warning.
“You’re going to box me.”
Sanreal offered me a subtle nod. “Yes, Isabel. I’m going to box you.”
I held myself upright by using the bridge’s handrail, and the grip on my emotions began to weaken. It was anger that slipped through first. “Why? Why would you do this to me?”
“Because you are a walking calamity. In the span of two days you have created all sorts of problems for us. You’re belligerent, bellicose, aggressive. You fight at every opportunity. You jump off buildings, disappear into the night, break into buildings, and cause a public sensation. I shudder at the prospect of what you’ll do next. You are an unstable, unpredictable element in a highly volatile situation. If something isn’t done about you, you’ll destroy yourself sooner rather than later.”
“That isn’t true. I’ve had my reasons—”
“Reasons?” He arched his eyebrows. “Reasons for behaving like a delinquent? Reasons for negotiating with our enemies? Reasons for behaving like a speeding train wreck? Do I need to ask for those reasons?”
“You have no guilt for what you’ve done to me.”
“Blame the Empress.”
“Yeah, I blame her. But I blame you—I blame Erina—for what my life has become.”
“That’s understandable. And it’s quite clear that no amount of reasoning with you will make a difference. You’ve decided we should all burn in Hell. So be it. I would gladly toss you to the Hell Fires if that would rid me off you. But Kateopia has decreed otherwise. But having seen how you turned out, I am tempted to simply hand you over to her. Considering how much trouble you’ve been for us, sending you to the Empress is an option. Though, Kateopia isn’t one to tolerate fools such as yourself. She’s liable to do worse than box you. She may decide you’re too much trouble and scrap you.”
I fought down the shiver that threatened to make my body tremble. “What about Project Mirai?”
“What about it? It will continue, of course. Your sister will be sorely disappointed, but she isn’t one to give up so easily after a setback. She’ll be free to create another Mirai, and perhaps this time without Kateopia’s interference. As you can see, it’s certainly an attractive option.”
I pushed away from the guardrail, and took a long stride toward him. “Then why don’t you?”
“Because I’ve already decided to box you.”
“What about the Gun Princess Royale? Doesn’t Kateopia want me to fight?”
“And fight you shall,” he replied. “You’ll be released to meet your commitments in the championship. And if you survive, it’s back in the box.”
“Gods damn you—damn you to Hell!”
“You brought this on yourself. Had you comported yourself in a rational manner, instead of an out of control mag-lev, I would have considered other options to deal with you. Other far more pleasant and worthwhile options. But no. You decided to act without regard for the consequences of your actions.”
I clenched my hands and whispered, “Frek you.”
“No, thank you. And now, our time is at an end.”
My body trembled with equal parts anger and fear. “I won’t let you do this to me.”
“Are you going to call for help? Will you summon your Sarcophagus?” He shook his head while smiling thinly at me. “That won’t work.”
“I’m going to accept Cardinal’s offer.”
Sanreal’s smile faded. “Very well. Then there is nothing more to discuss. Do as you wish.”
I was befuddled by his response. “What does that mean?”
“If you wish to accept their offer, then do so. If you believe you can trust them. After all, they’ve shown you how trustworthy they are. I’m sure you have nothing to fear from them.”
Sanreal knew an awful lot about my encounter with Tabitha, which meant that Ghost had some very loose lips. But for that matter, Ghost had acted and sounded with a sense of urgency and desperation I hadn’t seen in him before. Something they – that is, Sanreal – had said to him had profoundly affected him.
Of course. Clarisol. If I competed and conquered all in the Gun Princess Royale, Clarisol would be freed.
To Ghost who held deeply rooted feelings of guilt and regret for failing to protect Clarisol and her mother, this was a godsend of good news. Thus it wasn’t just my fate he had been warning me over, but Clarisol’s as well. Had Sanreal approached Ghost with this in mind – to elicit Ghost’s help in dealing with me?
I realized I’d been staring blankly at Sanreal for a while, but he appeared to be waiting patiently for me to bring my thoughts and feelings into order.
“Can you trust her?” I asked him. “Can you trust the Empress’s word?”
Sanreal’s eyes narrowed faintly. “Why do you ask?”
“I have no reason to fight for you. I’ve no reason to co-operate with you. You’ve done nothing but threaten me and bully me around all while expecting me to play nice.”
“And dealing with you nicely would make a difference? You expect me to believe that? You who has no reason to co-operate as you’ve just said. Do you take me for a fool? Nothing we do or say or offer you will make a difference because you’ve never had an interest, any intention, of co-operating. It’s impossible to reach an agreement with you.”
“You want to control me.”
“Of course. You’re our product. We can’t very well have our product telling us what to do.” He closed the distance between us to a few inches and stared down at me with poorly disguised contempt. “Who do you think you are? Did you think you could bargain with me? What can you offer me? While it’s true that you’re important, it’s also true that you’re not irreplaceable. Though it will take time, eventually another Mirai can be produced, at which point you can be replaced. Kateopia doesn’t even need to know—may never know—if and when we make the switch. But a more compliant Mirai is preferable to a noncompliant one. And if you wish to run to House Cardinal, then so be it. Our research into the Angel Fibers is so far along we have nothing to fear from House Cardinal’s scientists taking you apart.”
I ground my molars together in growing anger. “This is why I don’t co-operate with you. Because you don’t see me as a person. If you did, then things would be different. But you said it yourself—I’m product. But I’m not a thing. I’m a person. And until you get that through your thick head, I will never help you—never fight for you!”
“Then we have no further need for you.” He turned around smoothly, and began calmly walking along the bridge toward the opposite bank of the stream. “I’ll make arrangements to have you returned to Ar Telica. From there you can make your own way to House Cardinal. Feel free to do as you wish.”
I was knocked aback by how quickly I’d been discarded. “That’s it? You’re not even going to try to convince me.”
Beneath his loose robes, he shrugged. “Why bother? It’s impossible to reach an agreement with you.”
I followed him off the bridge and yelled, “You haven’t even asked me what I want!”
Sanreal stopped quickly on the paved path, but didn’t turn around to face me. “Then what do you want?”
I halted as well, a few feet away from him, breathing heavily under the influence of my roiling emotions. “I want my life back!”
“That’s not possible. It was never your life to begin with.”
My heart began to hammer painfully, angrily, but I reached inwardly to wrap my will around my emotions and contain them. “Then can’t you give me another life?”
With his back to me, Sanreal replied, “You already have a new life.”
“No, I want to live as a boy. As a man.”
Sanreal turned slightly toward me, but his back still faced me. “Transferring your neural map into a male Simulacrum is possible, but there may be complications afterwards. Psychological and neurological consequences. Are you prepared for that?”
“You transferred a male neural map into Mirai’s female brain. What about the consequences of doing that?”
“We had no choice. The Empress was dictating terms. Perhaps it explains your irrational behavior.”
He had a valid point.
The stark difference between my behavior as Ronin Kassius and the way I acted now wasn’t lost on me. It was something that had crossed my mind recently and it sincerely worried me. So perhaps there was some truth to Sanreal’s supposition that perhaps my confrontational behavior, my willingness to jump into a fight, my difficulties dealing with a situation calmly, and my hair trigger temper wasn’t because of Mirai alone, but because my male mind was in conflict with the structure of Mirai’s female brain.
Sanreal turned his head a little more toward me, but he was far from facing me. “However, if that is what you truly desire, I can have it arranged.”
With my thoughts elsewhere, I was a little slow on the uptake and blinked at him blankly for a moment or two.
Sanreal pressed on. “However, consider this. A copy of your neural map as it is now would be transferred. A copy. Nothing more. That means that the person you are now will remain behind. The process does not involve removing the brain from Mirai and implanting it into a male Simulacrum body. It would be the copy that lives as a man, while you continue to live as Mirai.” Sanreal then half turned his body toward me, and regarded me askance. “The moment you awoke, you became Mirai. You will always be Mirai. There is no escaping that reality.”
He wasn’t telling me something new, but being reminded of this truth was hard to accept, and I couldn’t keep myself from trembling as my emotions once again tore loose and ran rampant within me. However, before I cried out and wailed in rage and despair, Sanreal sliced through my thoughts like a knife through warm butter.
“It’s truly a pity that you cannot appreciate how special you are.”
The emotions boiling within me suddenly cooled to a simmer. “What…?”
“You hold such potential, and your life as Mirai and Isabel holds so much more promise than your existence as Ronin Kassius ever did, or will. Why are so determined to throw it all away? You could live as you’ve never lived before. True, there will be hardships, and the Gun Princess Royale is brutal, but you are more than just Mirai. You are Isabel val Sanreal. You are a daughter of the Sanreal Family, and thereby a member of House Novis.”
He turned around and faced me, standing on the path while I stood on the bridge.
“And that makes you my daughter. That makes you family.”
I stared at him, my thoughts grinding back into gear. “You said I was nothing to you.”
Sanreal sighed long and loudly. “I would be lying if I said that having another daughter doesn’t appeal to me.”
“You have Clarisol.”
“Yes. And now I have you. Two sons. Two daughters.”
Why was my heart beating so hard? Why was I feeling my emotions being swayed? Was it because after everything I’d been through, after the near constant antagonism with almost everyone around me, was I tired of fighting? Had I been broken? Or was this what I’d wanted from the start?
Sanreal walked slowly back to the foot of the bridge and looked up at me. “You said you wanted to be treated as a person, not a product. I’m open to treating you like a daughter—albeit illegitimate—but nonetheless as my daughter. And whether you are illegitimate or not, by its very definition you were conceived out of love between your mother and I.”
“But I don’t have a mother. None of my past is real. There is no love.”
“Isn’t there? How do you know that it isn’t real? How do you know that Isabel Allegrando did not exist?”
I swallowed sharply. “What are you saying?”
“Real is subjective. And I had a hand in your creation. But regardless of your origins, I am willing and open to accept you as my daughter. Not a product. Not a thing. But as a child of mine.”
I swallowed a little more slowly, but my confused, conflicted feelings were making it difficult to maintain my outward composure which was already fragile and close to shattering. “You would accept me?”
Sanreal nodded and his expression that had been stern now softened. “Of course. Why else did you think I brought you here?”
I shook my head haltingly, showing my confusion and uncertainty. “But…but you said you wanted to box me.”
Sanreal smiled and I saw a trace of embarrassment in his eyes as he averted his gaze for a moment. “Well, that was something of a last resort.”
“Are you going to box me?”
“Do you want to be boxed?” he asked in reply.
I shook my head, weakly at first, then firmly. “No….”
“Then that settles it.”
I stared at him, unable to comprehend this abrupt turn of events, or the change in the man who’d so steadfastly refused me at every verbal turn. “Why? Why would you decide this now?”
Sanreal looked uncomfortable, yet there was something fatherly about his countenance. Though memories were vague and fuzzy, it was something I remembered seeing my own father express toward Erina – a kind of sheepish, awkwardness as he struggled to make a connection with her or reach a degree of understanding with his daughter.
And this is what I was seeing in Sanreal now.
I had wanted to be treated like a person, and here was someone who was reaching out to me as family – as a father. It wasn’t entirely what I wanted. I wasn’t being treated like a son. I was being treated like a daughter. I felt angry. Revolted. Frustrated. I wanted to scream at him. But I couldn’t. I hated it, and yet by the same token I couldn’t bring myself to reject it. And suddenly, I experienced a glimmer of what it was like for Erina to deal with our father, and how difficult it may have been for him.
And I realized that I envied her.
I had envied her all these years.
I had envied the love and affection my parents had bestowed upon her, and so I had boxed those memories away.
I had envied her intelligence and her achievements, and thus I was relieved when she distanced herself from me, but deep down, subconsciously, I had continued to envy her…and perhaps I still did.
I had fallen silent for a long while, and Sanreal had grown faintly anxious.
I looked down at him, and struggled to clear my throat. My heart continued to pound away in my chest, and my feelings were a convoluted mush, but the pressure from within had eased.
Kyoko had said I didn’t need to discard my past in order to step forward, because my past was the starting line. The moment I awoke as Mirai, I inherited the legacy of Ronin Kassius’s life. But it wasn’t just his memories that I carried. It was his mind, his personality, his grudges, his loneliness, and his pain. Ronin was incomplete, a fact he had squarely denied to himself, and for the most part succeeded in bottling away. But I couldn’t do the same. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a man anymore. Or rather, maybe it was because of Mirai’s female brain working differently and thereby having different needs. The consequence was that I couldn’t bottle away the emptiness he felt. I realized that I needed to find what I was missing, and now I began to understand what it was.
As Mirai, I wanted to be treated as a person and wanted to be recognized for who I was.
As Ronin, I wanted achievements of my own.
But together, we wanted to be part of something bigger – something he’d been missing since his parents left Erina and I behind.
With a fair amount of difficulty, I managed to push the feelings choking my throat aside, and recover a little of my voice. “Will you truly accept me?”
Sanreal’s gaze wavered for a heartbeat before returning to me. “If you’ll accept us. And if you’ll accept your place as Isabel within the Sanreal Family.”
“And if I fight as Mirai.”
Sanreal’s lips pursed into a troubled line. “Yes. As unfortunate as that is.”
“And you’ll treat me like family.”
He nodded faintly yet firmly. “If you’ll treat us as family.”
I took a shuddering breath, and released it unsteadily. “I’m not ready to start calling you father.”
“Disappointing, but understandable under the circumstances.”
“I might be more trouble than I’m worth.”
He sighed and shook his head. “Then I’ll just have to treat you like a problematic daughter.”
“But you’re not going to box me.”
“I’m not going to box you.”
I took yet another shuddering breath, held it in for a long, long while, then expelled it in a rush.
Quietly, I walked down the short bridge and stood before Phelan Sanreal Erz Novis.
“So what now?” I asked, unable to hide my uncertain yet hopeful feelings.
Sanreal’s gaze met mine and he gave me a steady smile. “Welcome to the family, Isabel.”
Erina’s eyes had a bruised look to them as she stared at me in silence after listening to me recount my encounter with Sanreal.
She sat on the med-bed that quietly monitored her condition, wearing a hospital gown, her hands neatly folded over her midriff.
She’d been allocated to a suite that was identical to mine but in the villa’s opposite wing. I figured the med-bed in her bedroom was a necessary new addition, however the large bedroom had no trouble accommodating it and the pre-existing queen-sized four-post bed.
With the bedroom’s large window behind me, I sat on a chair beside the med-bed. After I finished telling her about what happened between Sanreal and I, silence had shrouded the bedroom and it dragged on for many minutes until Erina decorously cleared her throat, and then calmly asked, “What will you do?”
I didn’t meet Erina’s eyes. I didn’t need to. I could see her well enough as I looked down at her legs pushing up the bed covers from underneath. “What do you mean?”
“When you return to Ar Telica will you continue to live with me? Or will you seek other living arrangements?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it….”
Within the edge of my peripheral vision, I watched Erina lean back against the pillows that helped prop her up.
Again the room was quiet for a long while, and again it was Erina who eventually broke that silence. “I will tell you one thing. Sanreal is a wily old fox. You haven’t earned their trust. They’re going to watch you carefully. And though Sanreal has said he won’t box you, I’d take that with a kilo of salt. To Sanreal, restoring House Novis to the rank of Alus is important to him. He’ll do what it takes to make that happen. He won’t have any qualms about manipulating and using you, especially when you’re at your most vulnerable.”
This time I spared her a glance. Most vulnerable? Where does she get off telling me that? Who do you think is the most responsible for me being at my most vulnerable!
I relaxed my jaw enough to reply, “I know that.”
After Kyoko had guided me back to my suite, she’d embraced me, and warmly congratulated me. She described my decision as an important milestone in my journey to discover my life. Her feelings had felt pure, so I earnestly thanked her but asked her to be alone.
After she left, I’d lain on my bed for a long while as I turned my situation carefully over in my head, looking for as many angles as I could identify. What I concluded with a dull chill was that I wasn’t out of the woods. Sanreal’s acceptance was more like a reprieve. In other words, when considered rationally I understood that I had somehow earned myself a suspended sentence. I also acknowledged that I was going to have to be a lot smarter from now on. I had realized that in one respect I had entered into a game of deception, not with Kyoko, but with Sanreal.
I raised my head slightly as I looked at Erina. “I’m not that naïve. But I don’t want to keep fighting. I’m tired of fighting.”
A game of deception, indeed, and Erina was one of the best, if not the best player.
Erina’s eyes narrowed but not with doubt. She was openly scrutinizing me. “So you’ve decided to zig-zag instead. Remarkable. There is a brain inside that head of yours.”
“You should know. You made me.”
“I only wish you’d used it before.”
“Frek you, Erina,” I snapped. “Ever the bitch.” I rose from the chair I’d been sitting on. “I really don’t know why I came here. Talking to you is a waste of time. But I’ll tell you one thing. I may not trust them, but I’m going to give them a chance. And Sanreal is doing the same. He’s taking a chance on me. I’ll admit I’ve been acting stupidly. I’ve been all over the place, literally. But I can’t keep going like that. I had a close call. A near miss. Now I’ve got to rein myself in before they do.”
“So you’re going to play nice?” Erina humphed softly, then added, “They are going to test you.”
Erina met my questioning eyes. “They are going to test you. They’ll want to see which way you turn.”
“Test me. How?”
“You need to be careful,” she stated solemnly. “Don’t let your guard down.”
I stiffened and my innards grew cold.
I was well aware that if I opened myself up to Sanreal and lowered my guard around my feelings, I would face the prospect of being betrayed and hurt. Although I wanted to accept Sanreal’s words and sentiments at face value, I also knew that I was dealing with someone who had a bigger picture in mind. Ergo, the future prosperity of House Novis. Everything he’d said to me could turn out to be nothing more than a lie – a means to secure my co-operation – and having been worn down by my recent hardships, I had been all too receptive to a sudden show of kindness and understanding.
In that sense, I understood that Sanreal and Kyoko had taken advantage of me. However, I had looked at Kyoko’s aura and I had sensed no lie in her feelings. Yet there was a difference between someone telling the truth, and their underlying intentions. Kyoko sincerely desired that I find happiness by following the path that led to life as Isabel val Sanreal. That much was evident, and I had reluctantly taken a long step down that path.
On the other hand, I hadn’t looked at Sanreal’s aura at all. It was there, burning golden, but I’d not paid attention to it, something I know regretted. However, this was only the opening move. As I said earlier, a new game had started, one where my future was still on the line. I would have other opportunities to study Sanreal’s aura and to search for the lie. But what if there wasn’t any? What if Sanreal had expressed his true sentiments? What if I was welcomed as a daughter of the Sanreal Family? What then? I couldn’t deny the attraction that held for me because part of me yearned to be accepted. I felt a clear warmth in my heart at the prospect of being welcomed.
Family. A new family. Is it wrong for me to hope that things will be different this time? Is it wrong for me to hold out hope?
However, if there was mutual acceptance, I would again find myself living without recourse as Isabel val Sanreal, and I wasn’t ready for that. I felt as though the price was still too great for me.
Erina’s eyes were looking at me intently. “Trust your instincts. Your woman’s intuition.”
“Huh?” I blinked, and fell off my train of thought. “What?”
“Rely on Mirai. She will keep you safe.”
“What do you mean? I’m Mirai.”
Erina looked away and faced the wall beyond the foot of her bed. “Is that so? Then that’s good to hear.”
I didn’t understand her at all. What was she saying to me? “Erina—”
“When the time comes, don’t hesitate. Do what you need to do.” She looked at me again. “Do you understand?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I’ve got no idea—”
“Your priority is to survive.”
And then I caught something whispered so softly human ears would have failed to catch it. But Mirai wasn’t human and her hearing was unparalleled by other living creatures.
“…if something were to happen to me….”
I felt suddenly uneasy, and yet a frown spread across my forehead as I walked back to Erina and stood beside her bed. “Stop mincing words. Get to the point.”
For her part, I saw a flicker of hesitation in Erina’s eyes, but her voice betrayed none of it. “I told you already. They’re going to test you. And you’ll need to make a choice. You’ll need to decide what is best for you. To believe in them. Or to believe in yourself. But keep in mind one truth. There is no true freedom. Even if Sanreal is being earnest with you, you are not free. You won’t be free to do as you please. If you push the boundaries of what’s tolerable to them, you will be boxed. Make no mistake, and hold no illusions to the contrary.”
My breathing felt oddly calm despite the uncertainty Erina was stirring within me.
“I know that,” I eventually stated. “I know that I’m on shaky ground. And I know that I can’t unreservedly trust anyone. I know that Sanreal could have been deceiving me—taking advantage of me—turning the tables on me. And I know that I was too trusting of Ghost. I relied on him. I thought he’d be there to help. I forgot where his loyalties lie, and that was my mistake.”
In the corner of my eye, I watched him standing silently in a corner of the room, arms crossed, head bowed.
While I was lying on my bed, trying to encapsulate my situation, Ghost had quietly explained that the Empress had discovered our visit to Clarisol’s virtual prison. It may have had something to do with Ghost bringing me alone to meet Clarisol, because he had made many visits and never been caught. But on that occasion, the breach had been noticed and the Empress had wasted little time putting pressure on Phelan Sanreal. She had demanded Ghost be terminated, but Sanreal had refused. At some point, it almost seemed as though the Empress would pull the plug on the virtual prison. However, she chose not to, perhaps because she enjoyed tormenting Sanreal. Regardless, Clarisol’s virtual existence would live another day, but all visitation rights had been indefinitely suspended, and that included visits from her father.
Ghost had apologized profusely to Sanreal, and assumed all responsibility for the fiasco, but the damage was done, and Ghost had been obliged to spill the beans on my antics. All of which painted me in a poor light in Sanreal’s eyes. This explained Ghost resorting to pleading with me to behave before the Lord and Master of House Novis.
Erina shook her head slowly. “Don’t blame him. At the end of the day, he has no choice but to obey.”
Her sentiment surprised me and the look on my face told her as much. Truthfully, I didn’t disagree with her. Deep down, I had suspected the truth would eventually see the light of day. Maybe it was better this way, but I still felt betrayed even though Ghost had been backed into a very unforgiving corner.
Erina sighed gently. “Ghost is a troubled soul. He’s trapped as you are. And his burden is great.”
“You mean because of his regrets. Because of Clarisol.” I noticed I was fidgeting with my uniform’s apron and hurriedly moved my hands behind my back. “I get that. I really do.” Then I thought of what Sanreal had revealed to me. “But maybe I can help him.”
“You mean about the Empress’s promise to release Clarisol’s mind from the virtual prison?”
It may sound odd, but knowing that Erina was aware of my interactions with Ghost, and that she knew I’d visited Clarisol in her virtual prison, felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. And I was the one who’d told her. Why? Like I said, it was something I felt I needed to do after listening to Ghost, and after I spent time mulling over my situation. I still hadn’t told her about Mirai’s ability to see a person’s lifeforce, and I doubted I would, but there were other things that I felt better about sharing. That said, I had to be careful around Erina. I was playing a game of Give and Take. So far I’d done a lot of giving. If I didn’t get something in return, I was going to walk away with a loss. But for the moment, I gave her a nod, and in my peripheral vision I saw Ghost raise his head and look at me with restrained interest.
Erina pushed herself up higher, and seated herself more upright on the bed. After making herself more comfortable, she crossed her arms gingerly below her breasts – that happened to look less pronounced without help from her push-up bra – and addressed me in a very serious tone.
“Isabel, freeing Clarisol’s mind would require you to win the Gun Princess Royale.” She paused, undoubtedly for effect because she then asked, “Can you comprehend the commitment that would require from you?”
Erina nodded shallowly. “The Gun Princess Royale is more than a game. Especially to you. You’re not a mechanical avatar. You’re a living, breathing individual. If you lose, you could die.”
I grimaced. “Yeah, I know that.” My gaze drifted slowly over to Ghost standing against the back wall of the room. “I’d have to really throw myself into it.” I recognized wary hope in his eyes. “No more messing around. No more wasting time.”
Erina continued in her serious tone, sounding like a school counsellor. “Isabel, it wouldn’t be like studying for finals or entrance exams.”
“I know that,” I replied testily. “Erina, I’m not stupid. I had a taste of what it’s like when I faced the Gun Queen, and frankly it scared me. It really frekking scared me. I’m not looking forward to my first match as a member of Team Novis. And yet I know I can’t avoid it because of that bitch, the Empress. Honestly, honestly, it feels like I’m going to be ground up into beef paddy by the Gun Princess Royale.”
My body began trembling visibly and so I wrapped my arms around my chest. Showing weakness before Erina stung me bitterly but I couldn’t contain it.
Erina rested her head back and studied my quietly for an uncomfortably long moment.
I found her gaze irritating and difficult to bear, so I turned away but in so doing my eyes met Ghost’s. He looked startled and broke eye contact, while I felt a pang in my heart and hurriedly looked away.
“Isabel, can I ask you something?”
When I faced Erina, I noticed the curious light in her eyes. “What?”
“Can you see him?”
I gave myself away by the shock that sprang onto my face.
Erina’s eyebrows rose markedly. “You can see him?”
Way to go, Isabel. You dumb shit! Did you forget who you were dealing with?
Pressing my lips together angrily, I glared at Ghost who’d assumed an innocent ‘do not blame me’ look, but of course I was going to blame him. Then I heard Erina laugh softly, and when glancing at her, I saw her pressing down upon her bruised ribs.
“That certainly is interesting,” she said while gasping against the pain. “I never expected you would develop the ability to see him.”
“Because the wetware in your head is Remnant technology. We don’t know all of what it can do.”
I turned my glare upon her. “You stuck something you don’t understand into my head?”
“We needed something more advanced than anything we had at our disposal. We turned to the Remnant tech stored in one of the Fabricators. I won’t bore you with the details.”
“No, of course not. Why bother telling me at all? Need to know basis, right?”
“Stop being so angry. You’re alive because of that technology.” Erina eyed me sternly. “We had to give you the abilities of a mechanical avatar. How else would you be able to compete effectively in the Gun Princess Royale.”
“Don’t you mean survive?”
I exhaled angrily and stepped away from the bed, walking over to the window instead. It offered a view of the gardens lying between the villa and the lagoon sized pool.
“Isabel, are you serious about winning? Tell me the truth.”
I folded my arms under my breasts, and my shoulders heaved as I took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m serious.” I nodded faintly while watching the breeze sway the flowers in a particularly large flowerbed. “I need to show Sanreal that I’m serious.”
“And how do you intend to do that?”
Again my shoulders rose and fell heavily as I inhaled deeply. “I have an idea about that.” Turning away from the window, I looked at Ghost, aware that Erina was following my line of sight though she couldn’t see him. “And I’m going to need your help.”
Ghost pushed away from the wall he’d been lightly leaning against, wariness and anticipation in his eyes, but he remained silent.
That was fine with me because gathering my resolve required taking another generous breath. “I’m going give House Cardinal my answer.”
Shock spread in a heartbeat across Ghost’s face, and he wasn’t able to contain himself. “Princess, are you planning to accept—?”
“No,” I told him bluntly. “I’m rejecting Tabitha’s offer to represent her Noble House.”
Ghost visibly relaxed and resumed leaning lightly on the back wall.
I noticed Erina was looking at me with interest. “What is it?”
She shook her head briskly. “It’s nothing.” However, she looked over in the direction where she surmised Ghost was standing. “…I’d love to see him for myself….”
I gave Ghost a quick look. “Is there a way for her to see you?”
Ghost adopted a thoughtful expression. “She can use her phone’s camera function.”
I walked over to the bedside table where Erina’s phone rested. Handing it to her, I said, “Turn it on. Switch to camera mode.”
Erina did as told.
I pointed at Ghost. “Aim over there.”
Erina held the phone up and aimed the camera at the back wall.
Ghost bowed to her politely.
Wide-eyed, Erina gasped loudly. However, she didn’t drop the phone.
“Well?” I asked her.
Erina was staring intently at her phone’s screen. “Wow, he’s a hot.”
I cocked my head at her. “That’s the first thing you say?”
“Well he’s definitely my type. You’re a girl. Don’t tell me he doesn’t push your buttons—”
“Oh, he pushes my buttons all right! He makes me so angry I wish I could hit him.”
“Well, at least you’re getting along….”
Unexpectedly, her voice trailed away, and then she grew still and quiet. And then she visibly paled.
“Erina?” I was confused and unintentionally alarmed by the sudden change that came over her.
She remained that way for a few seconds longer before slowly shaking her head. “It’s nothing. Nothing at all.”
My worry had eased but I was still confused by her reaction to seeing Ghost for the first time.
However, she threw me a dirty look. “No wonder you spend so much time around him.”
“Heh?” I drew back from her, then waved a hand at her. “It’s not like I can get away from him. He follows me wherever I go.”
Erina stared at me as though I’d gone and lost my mind. “You have a man at your beck and call and you’re complaining?”
I pointed at Ghost while snarking at Erina. “You deal with him for more than a day.”
“I say you’re protesting way too much.” She resumed studying Ghost’s image in her phone’s screen. “He’s certainly a good-looking ghost.”
My eyebrows shot to my hairline. “That’s why you were speechless?”
Erina started fanning herself with her free hand. “Is it hot in here or it is just me?”
I rolled my eyes and threw my hands in the air. “Oh, knock it off. Don’t you have a fiancé? You harlot!”
When I reached down to deprive her of her phone, Erina fended me off, then abruptly cried out in agony.
“What?” I yelled, again unintentionally alarmed. “What’s wrong?”
“My ribs!” She had dropped the phone and was clutching at her ribs. “Damn the gods that hurts.”
I felt a tad guilty and decided to step back. “Sorry….”
Erina breathed shallow and fast as she negotiated with the pain. A short while later, she sat up gingerly, and took longer breaths. Her expression grew thoughtful. “Isabel, about the offer House Cardinal made to you. It might not be as simple as sending them a rejection.”
I crossed my arms slowly under my bosom. “What makes you say that?”
“House Alus Cardinal has the Empress’s ear.” Erina took a few more breaths, obviously dealing with the lingering pain across her bruised ribs, then added, “They may challenge House Novis for you.”
“The Empress may support their challenge.”
I realized what she was alluding to. “Are you serious?”
Erina nodded weakly, her face pensive and concerned. “If that happens, you’ll have no choice but to face their challenge.”
“You think they’d challenge me directly.”
Again, she nodded weakly. “Remember, they have a Gun Empress in their pocket. Make that two Gun Empresses.”
Moving away from the wall, Ghost cut in as he approached the foot of the med-bed. “Princess, tell her to switch her phone to speaker mode, or to use the earpiece.”
I relayed his suggestion to Erina, and she chose to detach the earpiece from the phone and fit it to her left ear.
Ghost then asked, “Doctor Kassius, can you hear me?”
While aiming the phone’s camera at him, Erina looked at his image on the screen and nodded. “I can.”
“Doctor, regarding your suspicions that House Alus Cardinal will challenge House Novis for Mirai, I find myself in agreement.”
“You do?” I threw him a surprised stare. “Why?”
“They were involved in the battle between you and the Gun Queen of Ar Telica. They were involved in Ronin Kassius’s ill-fated Zombie Apocalypse session. They have clearly played a part in every major event over the last few days that has involved either Ronin Kassius or Mirai.”
Erina was nodded subtly to his words, then looked up at me. “Isabel, when was the deadline for your reply?”
“Friday. Tabitha said Friday evening. Didn’t Straus tell you?”
“Akane didn’t tell me much. She only mentioned it briefly.”
I realized I hadn’t seen Straus since entering the villa. “Where is he—I mean she?”
“She had to return to Ar Telica. She promised she’d return shortly.”
“How did she do that?”
“She used her Sarcophagus,” Erina explained.
Remembering Ghost’s explanation about how the Sarcophagi navigated, I had to ask, “Is she going to find her way back.”
“Yes. A Sarcophagus always remembers where it’s been.”
“Even if this Citadel is moving?” I inquired. “The ship is moving, right?”
Erina and Ghost both looked at me, but it was Ghost who answered, “A Sarcophagus marks every place it visits, and is always able to return to it.”
The way he explained it had me thinking of a dog peeing to mark its territory. It was a distracting picture, and that’s why I only muttered, “Oh….”
Oblivious to the image in my head, Erina added, “That’s just the way it works. Don’t try to think of why or how it does this.”
“Oh, okay.” Shaking my head quickly, I jumped back on track. “So you think I shouldn’t reply to them—to House Cardinal—until just before the deadline?”
“I don’t think it will matter,” Erina replied. “If they made that offer, then they’re serious about you. And Akane told me Taura Hexaria didn’t look happy at being interrupted. She looked positively furious when Akane stole you away from her.”
I wet my lips and then swallowed anxiously. “Do you think she would challenge me herself?”
Erina and Ghost shared a look, though my former sister did so through her phone’s screen, then they both gave me somber nods.
“Wonderful,” I whispered under a heavy breath, then remembered what Tabitha had told me about Erina claiming I would die if I was taken away from House Novis.
I said this to Erina, and she regarded me in silence for a while. “It’s not true.”
“Hmm?” I dumbly muttered.
“I called her bluff,” Erina admitted. “I told her that if you didn’t return to your Sarcophagus at least once a day, you would die. That I had engineered you that way. But it’s not true.”
“But she doesn’t know that.”
“And neither does anyone else…but one.” Erina used her phone to pointedly stare at Ghost. “When you spilled your guts, did you tell Sanreal?” she asked him.
Ghost shook his head, looking wounded and contrite. “There are somethings I can withhold from them.”
“Good.” Erina sounded frosty. Addressing me, she said, “Then we need to get you into your Sarcophagus sometime today in order to keep up appearances. Also”—she looked at Ghost through her phone—“what we say in this room, stays in this room.”
I snorted at the notion that Ghost was going to keep that a secret. His face grew stony but there was regret laced into it as he replied to Erina. “As you wish. And I can assure you, this room is secure from prying eyes and ears.”
“Hmm.” He clearly didn’t miss the doubtful stare Erina gave him.
Erina then closed the subject by saying, “For now, let’s not worry about the possibility of a challenge. Send your rejection to Taura just before the deadline, and we’ll wait and see what happens.”
In other words, we would be playing things by ear and hoping for the best.
If I sent my reply before the deadline, then there wouldn’t be enough time to be challenged because by then the participants in this year’s Gun Princess Royale would be finalized. From that point on, Princesses could drop out, but no new Princesses could drop in. That meant, that if I received no challenge between now and the Friday evening deadline, then I was safe.
Facing a Gun Queen was hard enough, and I had only prevailed because of Clarisol’s flight of madness that blew up the school’s replica, and almost cost Mat and Shirohime their lives. But if I had to face Tabitha, a former Gun Empress, under different conditions then I didn’t think I could win. That is, if I had to face Tabitha in a real Gun Princess Royale match, I was as good as dead. Of course, since she wanted me to fight for her Noble House, then I doubted she would kill me. But even so….
It certainly would be nice to catch a break, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
While I was dealing with my mixed emotions, Erina intruded into my thoughts. “By the way, Isabel. There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
I was wary at the amusement hinted in her eyes. “Ask me what?”
“Why are you dressed like a tavern maid?”
I pressed my lips into a sullen pout. “I’d rather not say.”
Erina nodded weakly, then appraised me again. “It looks good on you.”
“Oh, shut up!”
It was early afternoon when I returned to my suite after leaving Erina’s room located in the opposite wing of the villa.
I had just kicked off my shoes and dropped myself onto a five-seater sofa in the living area when I heard a knock on the door.
Hoping it was Kyoko here to announce lunch was ready, I opened it only to find Geharis Arnval waiting outside.
“What do you want?” I grumbled unhappily at him.
“A little birdy told me something interesting.”
“Really? You get your horoscope by carrier pigeon?”
“Now there’s a thought.”
“I’m tired. I’ve had a shitty day. Go away.” I tried closing the door on him, but he held it open with a hand. “Move it or lose it,” I warned him.
Arnval grinned at me in a surprisingly suave manner. “Sorry, ma chéri, but I’m not here by choice.”
“Oh yeah? And why are you calling me ‘my cherry’? And why are you wearing that trench coat indoors?”
Arnval leaned into the open doorway, his suave grin growing bolder. “Aren’t you going to let me in?”
He pouted in mock reproach. “Is that how a lady treats a gentleman coming to her aid?”
I scowled up at him. “I haven’t asked for your help!”
Arnval grinned again as he straightened. “Your papa is very worried about you.”
Holding onto my scowl, I exhaled loudly in exasperation. “Really? Then he should warn you away from me.”
“It was your papa who sent me over.”
I leaned back slightly in surprise. “Sanreal sent you? Why would he do that?”
“Because your training starts today, ma chéri.” He leaned a lot closer to me this time, and I had to lean back again or bump noses with him. “Time to start molding you into a Gun Princess.”
Realizing what he meant, an uneasy feeling rushed through me, then circled back and settled into my gut. “You’re going to train me?”
Arnval arched an eyebrow and smiled his charming best. “Oui, ma chéri.”
I hated to admit it but that smile of his would send my female classmates into a tizzy.
As for me, it distracted me from my anxious innards by making the veins in my temples throb angrily. “And why would you start training me now?”
Arnval dropped the smile and released his hold on the door. “Because, ma chéri, House Alus Cardinal issued you a challenge, and we just received word of it.”
For a long while I stared at him blankly until I felt lightheaded and had to lean on the doorjamb for support. “Don’t tell me. Please, don’t tell me. I’ve been challenged by Tabitha Hexen.”
“Taura Hexaria Erz Cardinal, to be precise.”
I scowled at him anew. “I told you not to tell me.”
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
I know that I'm posting on New Year's Day and New Year's Eve, but I wanted to get it out ASAP.
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.
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.