Breakfast had been meager, lunch had been meager, and dinner, if they ever got it, would be meager as well. This was, Aina had been told, supposed to help her body prepare for the next day’s fast, but it certainly made it difficult to resist the appetizers she was now carrying around the room, serving to Akira’s many guests.
If there was one thing that stood out about Aina’s formal dress, it was the exaggerated frills that covered it from top to bottom. Unnecessarily-large strips of snow-white lace covered the hem, the collar, the cuffs, and the edges of the vestigial apron sewn onto the dress. The shoulder straps which pretended to hold the apron up were made of the same frills, and were sewn onto the back of the dress in the shape of a bow. The lace used to create these trimmings was the same width as the lace used on the older girls’ dresses, which made it proportionally larger on Aina. The others had assured her that she looked cute in the dress, but Aina thought she just looked like a puffy ball of lace. Despite that, she was grateful that the cut of her dress was not as immodest as the older girls’.
“Otsukaresama, Aina-chan,” Diaho greeted her as she passed him on her way back to the kitchen with an empty tray. It was her third visit to the kitchen that night, and she was already drooling in anticipation of the delicious smells that she would encounter there.
Mercifully, she wouldn’t have to linger in those hunger-inducing scents for long. As she entered the kitchen, a gynoid—Aina didn’t know her name—lifted the platter from Aina’s hand and placed atop a pile of dirty dishes. The kitchen, which had been bustling with activity on her last visit, was now empty save for three gynoids, who were busy cleaning the room.
“No more?” Aina asked the gynoid who had taken her tray. At the sound of her voice, the other two paused their work and turned to look at her.
“No more. Go join the others in the dining room,” the gynoid answered with the same flat voice all gynoids shared. Perhaps it was her imagination, but Aina thought she could detect a hint of nervousness in that monotone voice. Aina knew that all three of them would probably be subjected to diagnostic tests simply because they were alone in the room with her. She bowed to the gynoids and left without a word.
As she turned a corner in the hallway, she nearly bumped into Akira.
“Aina-chan, ii timing. Where are you running off to?”
“The dining room, goshujin-sama.”
“You’re going the wrong way then. I’m headed to the dining room, why don’t you accompany me?” Aina had been walking towards the dining hall where the house staff ate, having never visited the dining room where Akira took his meals.
“Arigatou gozaimasu, goshujin-sama,” Aina thanked him as the two of them began walking towards the dining room. “Goshujin-sama,” she started before he could speak, “I think I may have broken the law.”
“Did you steal an extra dessert or something? Don’t worry, I know a good lawyer.” Akira joked.
“Iie, goshujin-sama, I read in one of the hons from your toshokan—Arigatou for letting me read them, by the way—that education is compulsory until 10th grade. It’s even in the constitution!”
“Ki ni shinaide,” Akira reassured her. “Your meido training counts as vocational education.”
“Sou ka? Yokatta,” Aina breathed a sigh of relief. She had been worrying about that for days.
“Kite, Aina-chan,” Akira said as they stopped a few feet in front of the entrance to the dining room, “I have a ninmu for you. After dinner, I’ll be entertaining a guest in the drawing room. I want you to bring us ocha jyuu-go minutes after we finish eating, and I need you to get a good look at my guest.”
“So that I can kill him later?”
“Iie, I don’t think it will come to that, but I want him to think it might, so make sure he notices you looking at him.”
The conversation and light music had muffled the grumbling of the meido’s stomachs as they placed dishes on the table, cleared the guests’ plates and refilled their drinks. Aina found the entire hour and a half excruciating, and wished she had thought to eat one of her snacks earlier.
There was no time to get food after the dinner either, as Aina helped carry the dishes back to the kitchen and wash them before brewing tea for Akira and his special guest. As she was making her way to the drawing room, carrying a tray with a kettle and two cups, Karin, walking in the opposite direction, waved a stolen dinner roll at Aina, who opened her mouth wide so that Karin could feed it to her as she passed. Aina could taste the little bits of lint clinging to the bread, but food had never tasted so good.
“Awiago,” Aina tried to thank Karin with her mouth full. She managed to swallow the roll before arriving at the drawing room, where she placed the tray on a conveniently-located pedestal next to the door and knocked.
“Nani is it?” Akira called out.
“Ocha, goshujin-sama?” Aina asked.
“Come,” Akira bade. Aina opened the door and moved the tray to a table within the room before closing it. She laid coasters next to the two men and began to pour tea into the cups.
“You seem remarkably well informed about the inner workings of the Ministry of Defense, Akira-dono,” Akira’s guest said.
“I probably know more than any single person,” Akira bragged. “And that includes the Minister of Defense. It’s no secret that I’m after his job.”
“Be that as it may, the information you are asking for is classified kimitsu. I can’t divulge it, even to you. Please wakaru.”
“I do,” Akira responded, as Aina set a teacup down next to the guest. “I wakaru many things. For instance, that you are one of the few competent administrators in the Ministry of Defense.”
“Arigatou, but you think too highly of me,” the man said, as Aina placed the second cup near Akira before stepping backwards and bowing. “If I were competent, I wouldn’t be so politically isolated within the ministry.”
“You give yourself too little credit,” Akira said, blowing on his tea. “What happened wasn’t your fault, and you’re the first bureaucrat from the ministry I’ve met who has done his job and refused to divulge classified information to me. You’re a step above the others.”
“That’s just because my family ties give me less reason to fear you,” the man said, rotating the cup nervously in his hands.
“Let me get to the point. Competent people are hard to find in government, and I have a great need for them. I want you to request reassignment to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. You have no future in the Ministry of Defense, and it would be embarrassing to return to the Ministry of Agriculture, wouldn’t it?”
“You’re not wrong about that.”
“Saburo-dono, if you help me become the Minister of Defense, I will return the favor. Whatever you want, I’ll make it happen. I’ll put you in charge of the simpering fools who made you a scapegoat. Hell, if you want, I’ll make you the new Minister of Education. A cabinet position is usually beyond the reach of a third son. How about it?”
“I’m not even an MP,” Saburo noted.
“That’s not a problem. I’ll get you listed as a block candidate.”
“That’s a very generous offer. Demo…” Saburo began. He was going to finish with, “are you really in a position to promise those things?” but thought better of it. “Are you sure we should be discussing this in front of your house staff?”
“She won’t repeat this to anyone. She’s much better-trained than those bakas you work with,” Akira chuckled.
“Demo, she’s so young.”
“You have to start their training young if you want them to become great meido.”
“Sou ka? That must be the reason you have so many beautiful young women in your employ.” Saburo chuckled at his own joke, but stopped abruptly when it was obvious that Akira didn’t find the insinuation amusing. “Still,” he recovered, “I would prefer to discuss this in private.”
“You may go,” Akira waved Aina out of the room, and she was glad for it. She had recognized Saburo as her parents’ boss, a man they had warned her to keep out of sight of. Aina didn’t know why he was dangerous, just that her parents feared what he would do if he met Aina. She was relieved that Akira seemed to have the upper hand over him, but she didn’t want to take any chances. Now that she was free, she intended to raid the kitchen and keep out of sight until he left.
“Ainya-chan, taihen!” Momo exclaimed as Aina neared the kitchen. It appeared dinner would have to wait again.
“Momo-chan, what’s the matter?”
“Your tomodachi is back.”
“Hai, and she’s making a scene in the front yard!”
Aina rushed to the closest window to find a small group of meido huddled around it. She wriggled her way between them and leaned out over the windowsill to see what was going on.
Sena was standing in the middle of the walkway, an unsheathed odachi slung over her right shoulder. Kazue stood before her, arms out, to block her path. A few feet behind them, a tall man with thin hair watched in amusement.
“If I wanted to harm him,” Sena was saying, “I wouldn’t use such an obvious buki.”
“Then you should have no problem leaving it behind.” Kazue asserted. “Where did you even get that thing anyway?”
“I gave it to her,” the man piped up. “Don’t worry, it’s not real. Totally legal.” He winked at Kazue.
“I merely want to appear threatening,” Sena stated.
“Is this another one of your attempts at humor?” Kazue asked. “I’m no homo sapiens, but I doubt they would find it funny.”
“I think it’s funny,” volunteered the man.
“I am serious,” Sena answered. “I couldn’t harm him even if I wanted to. You know that I cannot harm anyone without orders.”
“I am worried that you may be acting under someone’s orders.”
“I am working perfectly, and I am not acting under anyone’s orders. Just ask Hideaki-sama.”
“It’s true,” Hideaki, the man behind her, said. “Would I ever lie to you?”
“Hai,” both gynoids said in unison.
“About something this important?” he added. Kazue lowered her arms slightly.
“I understand that you want to protect your tomodachi, but interrupting the party and waving that thing around will only cause more suspicion to fall on her,” Kazue tried to reason with Sena. “Besides, goshujin-sama would be furious. He might even have you dismantled.”
“I am open to alternative keikaku, but I am running out of time. I cannot let that hito get his hands on Aina-chan.”
“None of us want that,” Kazue replied, “but we have to trust that goshujin-sama won’t let that happen.”
“He would not hesitate to hand Aina-chan over if it would further his ambitions,” Sena stated.
At that moment, the front door to the mansion was flung open, and Naomi walked out, carrying a package under her arm.
“Ohisashiburi, Hideaki-sama,” Naomi greeted. “Arigatou for taking a look at our gynoid on such short notice.”
“Osu, Naomi-san,” Hideaki returned the greeting. “Your pronunciation is as lousy as ever.” They both smiled.
“Is this the one that was malfunctioning? Why is it carrying a sword?” Naomi asked.
“This is the one, but there was nothing wrong with her,” Hideaki answered.
“Nothing wrong?” Naomi asked with bemusement in her voice. “It refused to perform a self-diagnostic, became violent, had to be subdued, and now intends to threaten my master’s guests with an illegal weapon, and you say there’s nothing wrong with it?”
“She had good reasons,” Hideaki shrugged. “And since when do you care about the legality of your weapons?”
“If there’s nothing wrong with this gynoid, then how do you explain this?” Naomi pulled something out of the package and showed it to Hideaki. Aina couldn’t make out what it was from her position.
“Are you saying one of my gynoids did this?”
“It is true, Hideaki-sama,” Sena admitted. Kazue attempted to sneak a look at whatever Naomi was holding, but Naomi quickly placed it back into its packaging.
“That really sucks,” Hideaki said. “You could have done a much better job than that. Maybe there really is something wrong with you.”
“You know there is not,” Sena replied. “I had good reasons to do it that way.”
“I believe her,” Hideaki told Naomi.
“I want an explanation,” Naomi turned on Sena.
“I have no objections to discussing this with you Naomi-sama,” Sena said, “but may I request that we talk about it in private?”
“That’s probably wise,” Naomi assented. “For the time being, we should clear this area. The party guests will be coming this way soon.”
“Then if you will excuse me,” Sena said, and began to walk towards the mansion.
“Wait, where are you going with that sword?” Naomi demanded.
“She intends to save Aina-chan from that hito,” Kazue butted in.
“Drop the sword,” Naomi ordered. From Aina’s position, she could Sena’s eyes begin to glow a bright red, but Sena released her grip on the sword. After, her eyes returned to their usual dull gray.
“I took the liberty of modifying her eyes,” Hideaki explained, noticing the look of shock on Naomi’s face. “You were worried about her disobeying orders. Her eyes will glow like that any time she resists a direct order.”
“Thank you, Hideaki, that’s very useful,” Naomi smiled, picking up the odachi. “As for you,” she said, turning to Sena. “You’re too late. Mme Aina is currently serving tea to that man.” Upon hearing those words, Sena started running towards the front door, but she didn’t make it even two steps before Naomi grabbed her from behind and threw her to the floor, pinning her to the ground with her foot and holding the blade of the odachi threateningly at her throat.
“Don’t hurt her!” Aina shouted as she hopped over the windowsill and blindly rushed Naomi.
“I’m not—” Naomi started to say, but stopped when Aina swatted Kazue, who had attempted to grab Aina, out of the way as easily as if she were a fly. Kazue sailed a good twenty feet before crashing to the ground.
With the package in one hand and Sena underfoot, Naomi only had the odachi with which to defend herself from Aina, but not wanting to seriously injure the young girl, she threw the weapon aside, counting on Aina’s mad rush to bring her within her grasp. But as soon as she saw the sword leave Naomi’s hand, Aina changed course to grab it out of the air. Naomi, not wanting to let Sena free, was unable to prevent Aina from claiming it.
“Stay down,” Naomi ordered Sena. Sena’s eyes glowed red, but she ceased her attempts to free herself, and Naomi stepped off her. At the same time, Aina lunged at Naomi, sword out in front of her. Naomi recognized that the maneuver was intended not to harm, but to force her away from the gynoid, so she simply sidestepped the attack, allowing Aina to sail past her. Aina landed, pivoted, and raised the sword high above her head. Had Aina been taller, Naomi would have simply grabbed her wrists and bent them backwards, but the height difference made this more difficult, and Naomi didn’t want to dirty her dress by kneeling.
Aina didn’t see the kick that knocked her sideways, but she felt the air escape her lungs as the force of the blow temporarily paralyzed her diaphragm. She barely managed to keep her grip on the sword as she fell to the ground.
“Aina-chan, stop,” pleaded Sena. “She didn’t use enough force to damage me.” Aina, still struggling to catch her breath, dropped the sword on the ground.
“That was very stupid of you, Mme Aina,” Naomi said. Aina just nodded, unable to speak.
“Is this the one?” Hideaki asked, walking up to where Aina knelt.
“Yes,” Naomi nodded. Hideaki pulled a scouter from his belt and placed it over his left eye. The device beeped and whirred for a few seconds before falling silent.
“The kid’s smart,” Hideaki observed, placing the scouter back on his belt. “But not smart enough to sabotage a gynoid. Gomen, kid.”
“No… apologies… necessary,” Aina gasped. “I… know… that.”
“Did you find anything unusual about her?” Naomi queried.
“She’s uncommonly strong, but I didn’t need my scouter to tell me that,” Hideaki answered, gesturing towards Kazue, who was just beginning to stand up. “Nothing else stood out. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s a normal ningen who was blessed with strength and intelligence by a kami, probably Omoikane.”
“Thank you, that’s very helpful,” Naomi replied. “You may get up now,” she said to Sena, who immediately scrambled to Aina’s side.
“I’m daijoubu…” Aina huffed, looking into Sena’s eyes, the red glow still fading from them. “That hito doesn’t… know who I am.” Sena hugged Aina briefly before turning to Hideaki and falling to one knee, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Gomen nasai, Hideaki-sama. I dropped a belonging of yours on the ground,” Sena said.
“No need to apologize. You were ordered to,” Hideaki said bending down to pick up his odachi.
“Gomen nasai, Hideaki-sama,” Kazue’s voice surprised Hideaki, who had not noticed her approach. She was kneeling before him in the same pose. “I doubted your words.”
“You had good reason to. You may tate, both of you,” Hideaki reassured them. Kazue drew herself up to stand next to him, but Sena turned to face Naomi.
“Moushiwake arimasen, Naomi-sama,” she groveled. “I have caused you many unnecessary problems today.”
“The day’s not yet over,” Naomi observed, pulling Sena to her feet. “Come on, we have some things to discuss.” Aina tried to follow them as they walked towards the side of the mansion, but Sena stopped her.
“Please, Aina-chan, I would like to speak with Naomi-sama in private.”
“Go get some rest, Mme Aina,” Naomi ordered. Dejected, Aina walked back into the mansion alone.
Nobody sat next to Aina as she devoured her half-sized dinner. They all kept their distance from her in the bath. When she flopped down, exhausted, in her bed, Momo was not there. Aina went to bed as sad and lonely as she had been her second night in the mansion, but this time, at least, she didn’t cry.