Chapter 14

August 6th, U.C. 0043

Aina had trouble sleeping, which was going to make her first day of fasting all the more trying, but she was soundly asleep at 3:30 when she was woken by a familiar robotic voice.

“Ohayou gozaimasu, Aina-chan.”

“Kazue-chan?” Aina asked as she struggled to regain full consciousness. “Doko’s Sena-chan? Is she daijoubu?”

“I am right here,” said Sena, stepping into the room behind Kazue.

Yokatta,” Aina managed before slipping back into slumber. Kazue gently shook her back awake.

“Now is not the time for that,” Kazue admonished. “You can take a nap later. If you want one last meal before your fast, which I recommend, we must finish your morning chores well before sunrise.”

“Kazue-chan, gomen,” Aina mumbled. “Did I hurt you last night?”

Iie, I am undamaged, although I would prefer it if you did not do that again.”

Hai, gomen,” Aina apologized again, sitting up in bed. “Naze are you both here?”

“You will need my help to get your chores done early this morning,” Kazue replied.

“We feared that Naomi-sama may have tortured you for information last night,” Sena corrected. “Kazue-sama came to restrain me should I illogically decide to attempt to exact revenge, despite the fact that I am incapable of such an emotional response.” Aina climbed out of bed and wobbled over to her wardrobe.

Sou ka?” Kazue retorted. “Then naze did you insist that I look into the room first?”

“I was merely being polite. Don’t I always insist, ‘you first,’ Kazue-sama?”

“Sena-chan, arigatou for worrying about me,” Aina said, walking over to the gynoid and gently hugging her around the waist. Sena placed her arms across Aina’s back, and although it could not convey the warmth or love of a human hug, it made Aina happy. For Sena’s part, the gynoid did not enjoy intimate physical contact, but neither did she dislike it.

“If we do not hayaku, we will not finish on time,” Kazue interrupted.

“Buuuuuu!” Aina stuck her tongue out at Kazue, but released Sena from her grasp and stumbled sleepily into the bathroom.

With the three of them working together, they finished cleaning the shoes with plenty of time for Aina to make it to the dining hall for an early breakfast. She was served the same portions she had been served the previous day, but with hunger already beginning to bother her, they appeared much smaller. The others still kept their distance and pretended not to notice Aina, but she caught Momo stealing a few glances in her direction.

Shortly before sunrise, Naomi strolled into the dining hall and stood at the front of the room. Naomi usually took her meals in her room or in her office, but her presence on Penance Day was expected, and normally would have gone unnoticed, but Aina’s fate had not yet been announced.

“Those of you participating in the fast, line up on the right side of the room,” Naomi commanded, pointing to her right. “Everyone else, line up on the left side of the room.” Silence fell over the hall, save for the quiet footsteps of the meido hurrying to carry out their housekeeper’s orders. Naomi knew that they were all awaiting an announcement of Aina’s punishment—it had been a topic of much gossip the previous night, and there was even a bit of money riding on it—but she enjoyed their nervous anticipation. Only a few seconds after issuing the order, two more-or-less equally-sized lines of meido faced each other across the room. Aina and Chikako lined up on the right, while Naomi, Karin, Mimi, and Momo lined up opposite them.

“For the next yon days, we shall fast,” Chikako recited, as she had recited on Penance Day in years previous. “We shall be tired, we shall be hungry, and we shall be mostly defenseless. To those of you who will take up the extra burden of safeguarding our lives, we place ourselves in your care.”

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” the entire line recited in unison, bowing to the other side of the room.

“And to those of you indulging our master’s narcissism so that we do not have to, you have our thanks,” replied Naomi. It wasn’t the proper response, and displeasure showed on Chikako’s face for an instant before she got it under control.

Arigatou gozaimasu,” Naomi’s line recited as they bowed back.

“Mme Aina, front and center,” Naomi announced as she broke ranks and walked to the middle of the room. Aina reluctantly stepped forward and joined her. “Last night, as many of you saw, Mme Aina raised a sword against me, but she had the best of all reasons for doing so: to protect a comrade. And even though she misjudged the situation, and her comrade was in no real danger, her loyalty is to be commended, not punished.” Naomi looked around the room to see that many heads were nodding in agreement.

“Furthermore, I do not consider attacking me to be a punishable offense. Stupid, certainly, but even the strongest of you is as harmless to me as a ladybird, and could never hope to land even a single blow on me. In other words, you’re incapable of committing the crime, so there’s nothing to punish. In fact, if you have a good reason, like Mme Aina did, I encourage you to try it. If you survive, it’s a good way to reaffirm your own weaknesses, and if by some fluke you manage to kill me, our master would probably reward you handsomely for it.” A few of the meido shifted nervously but remained silent.

“But,” Naomi continued, “Mme Aina announced her presence to her target, she attacked a superior opponent head-on without a strategy, and she fought not to kill, but to force a retreat. She will be punished for these foolish actions.” Naomi raised her other hand as if to quiet the crowd, though none were speaking. “I know some of you may feel that it is not right to punish one who has not even begun her combat training, who could not even know these were mistakes, but you have all witnessed Mme Aina’s unusual strength and her lack of discipline. For her own sake as much as ours, she must learn to control herself.

“And yet, I am having trouble thinking of a suitable punishment. Normally, I would throw her in the brig, but she still has months left of domestic training, so imprisonment would feel more like a vacation. I could make her run laps or do pushups, but her strength makes such activities meaningless. I could reduce her rations, but she has already volunteered to go for four days without. Even flogging would be ineffective, I fear. She signed up to be subjected to our masters interminable lectures for the next four days, so she’s obviously a hardcore masochist.”

At this, a few snickers began to break out around the room.

“Naomi-sama, what about halving her pay?” A meido suggested.

“That would answer an interesting philosophical question,” Naomi mused. “What is the sound of one penny rubbing together?” More laughter, louder this time. “I have tried this in the past, but since our master pays you so little to begin with, I found it mostly ineffective. However, I am open to suggestions. Any others?”

“If she likes the gynoids so much, why not treat her like one? She could even sleep in the cellar with them,” came another voice from the crowd.

“We’re trying to come up with punishments she won’t enjoy,” Naomi reminded them.

“Shave her head!” Yelled a Meido from the other side of the room. Aina did not like that idea, but she suppressed the urge to cover her hair with her hands.

“It would only make her cuter,” Naomi dismissed the suggestion. “Any others?”

A rash of hushed conversations broke out across the room, but no submissions came from them. “Very well,” Naomi declared after the conversations stopped. “I am left with only one choice, though it is a dreadful punishment, and I am hesitant to use it. Therefore, I am granting Mme Aina a four-day reprieve to give myself time to think of other options. If any of you have suggestions, please submit them to me before the fast ends. You are all dismissed.”

Despite all that had happened, Aina was still sleepy as she made her way back to her room to change into the black kimono. She had never worn a kimono before, and Sena had to help her change into it. She also found it difficult to walk in, partially because the kimono was made of simple cloth, unlike the high-tech material her meido uniform was made of, which accommodated itself to her movements. As a result, she was the last to arrive in the dining room for the morning Penance Day assembly.

Ara, Aina-chan,” Chikako called out, walking over to the girl. “Don’t you look cute?”

“Arigatou, Chikako-onee-sama. Demo, you look much prettier than watashi.” Aina meant it. Chikako looked much more elegant than Aina had ever seen her. “Are you wearing makeup?”

“Shh, not so loud. I don’t want goshujin-sama to notice,” Chikako chided. She was wearing a thin layer of blush with a subtle eye shadow and nude lipstick. Her nails were painted with a thin layer of clear white polish, which made them shine, but was otherwise difficult to see. “This is the only time of year I get to wear makeup.”

“Good thing you don’t need it,” Aina complemented.

“Don’t think your flattery will get you out of trouble, Aina-chan,” Chikako grinned.

“Trouble?” Akira asked, walking up to the two of them. “Did you steal another dessert, Aina-chan?”

“It’s just a minor disciplinary infraction, goshujin-sama,” Chikako reassured him. “Nothing you need to worry about. Her punishment has even been put off until after the fast.”

“You’d better shape up, Aina-chan,” Akira admonished. “If all goes well, you’ll have a couple of kohai looking up to you soon.” He turned to Chikako. “Is this minna?”

“Hai, goshujin-sama.”

Ii, let’s get started then.” He took a seat at the head of the dining table. Chikako took the seat to his right, a seat usually reserved for Diaho, who was not present. Aina, respecting the hierarchy, sat in a chair at the far end of the table.

“First off, arigatou to all of you for lending me your support this Penance Day,” Akira started, slipping into teacher mode. “I know that most of you come from French families, and your ancestors, unlike mine, bear no culpability for the tragic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so I am overwhelmed that so many of you are willing to join me. Since this is the first time that many of you have participated in Penance Day, I figured we’d start by discussing the history behind it, but before that, does anyone have any questions?” Most of the meido assembled had heard this speech before, and the rest didn’t care to. As difficult as it is to keep students interested during lectures, it is much more difficult when the audience is not used to sitting and listening for hours at a time, but Aina was only a month removed from school and had an inquisitive mind, so she was the only one to raise her hand.

“How come I’ve never heard of Penance Day before? Is it a national holiday?”

“That’s an ii question, Aina-chan,” Akira said. “It is not a national holiday, but there’s a bit of history behind it. Penance Day was actually born from a large-scale pissing contest within the English-speaking weeaboo community, years before the founding of the Federation. In a thread in which many were proclaiming to love Japan the most, one anonymous poster claimed that he partook in a religious fast every year to mark the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is, perhaps, the only worthwhile idea to come out of that mess, and certainly the only idea that has persisted to this day.”

“No wonder Naomi-sama called it narcissistic,” Aina commented. Chikako made a face that looked like she had just swallowed a live rat, but Akira laughed it off.

“Naomi-san may have a point. But this narcissistic origin has made participation a matter of pride, rather than one of duty.”

“Does that mean the atomic bombings are not important enough to be remembered by minna?” Aina followed up. Before Akira could answer, the door opened up and Naomi poked her head into the room.

“Did you call for me, goshujin-sama? I could have sworn I heard you say my name.”

“I did not,” Akira replied. “Is there something you need?”

“Yes, actually.”

“Is it important, or can it wait until I’ve finished answering Aina-chan’s question?”

“It can wait,” said Naomi, stepping into the room.

“It’s not that the bombings weren’t important,” Akira said, “but for reasons lost to time, they were never widely commemorated outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t really understand it myself. At the very least, they were important for ushering in the atomic age, not to mention the untold pain, suffering and death they caused.”

“Demo, goshujin-sama, isn’t that what sensou is: pain, suffering and death?” Aina asked. “What makes the atomic bombings different?”

“It’s partially due to the scale of the damage.”

“Demo, it was only two cities, and neither were completely destroyed,” insisted Aina. “Why fast for this, and not the destruction of entire nations, or even the destruction of Japan?”

“Japan is not destroyed,” Akira countered. “Its spirit lives on in us, and its descendents live on in the forbidden city. Someday, we will be able to make Japan habitable for them again. Demo, your point is valid.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “The atomic bombings hold special significance for weeaboos. They had a profound effect on Japanese culture, especially anime. In the very beginning, Tetsuwan Atom explored technology’s destructive potential. Nuclear angst was a main theme of many classics, like Gundam, Akira, and Nausicaa. It’s fair to say without the atomic bombings, anime as we know it would not exist, and by extension, neither would our cultural identity. Fasting on this date is a good way to remind us that, although we enjoy the fruits of Japanese culture year-round, we seeded that culture with the pain of hundreds of thousands.”

Majide? Aina thought. Aren’t you just trying to take credit for something you had nothing to do with? How self-centered can you get?

Aina knew better than to give voice to these thoughts, but consternation showed plainly on her face, and she could see it mirrored on the faces of many around the table.

“I think that’s a bit too much for someone her age to process,” commented Naomi. “Can’t you make it any simpler?”

“I can make it clearer; I can’t—” Akira cut himself off as soon as he realized who Naomi had tricked him into quoting. He hung his head with a heavy sigh before asking through gritted teeth, “What do you need?”

“Hideaki-sama is calling from jail again,” Naomi informed him. “He was picked up last night strolling through town with a large sword.”

Hideaki Miller, age 52, was not just the brilliant inventor of the electronic mind, he was also a hardcore otaku, even by weeaboo standards. This endeared him to many members of the goshujin caste. Although he had no formal title of his own, and his modest fortune paled in comparison to theirs, many of the country’s elite referred to him as Hideaki-dono. His ties with the Wright family spanned generations, and Akira had looked up to him as a child.

“Didn’t I bail him out last time?” asked Akira, rubbing his eyelids.

“You did, but he was arrested on his way back from this mansion last night. We called him for some emergency maintenance on one of the gynoids.”

“It must have been serious for him to come himself. Anything I should worry about?”

“Not at all. It turned out to be a false alarm.”

“Very well. If you’ll excuse me ladies, I need to take care of this. I’ll return shortly.”

The next four days progressed without incident. Aina was grateful for the snacks Sena had bought for her, as she would have had a much more difficult time without them. Naomi was initially angry when she noticed that Sena had used part of her maintenance budget to buy food, but when she learned that it was being used to subvert Akira’s fast, she approved the expenditure with a smile.

Aina spent much of the time conversing with Akira about matters only tangentially related to Penance Day. It was the most time she had spent with him since they first met, and she found that, despite his eccentricities, he was very intelligent and compassionate in his own way. In turn, he was delighted to find that she had an intensely curious mind and wasn’t afraid to critically analyze everything he told her. In short, she was his ideal student. They were both surprised to find that they enjoyed each others’ company in this way, and so an odd relationship formed between them. Not quite a teacher-student relationship, nor a father-daughter relationship, for they existed in completely different social stratospheres, but a kind of kinship among those who enjoy intelligent conversation.

Because they spent so much time together, the other meido participating in the fast had to endure fewer lectures than normal, which gained Aina much gratitude among her coworkers.

After dinner on the fourth night, Aina was pleasantly surprised to find Momo asleep in her bed. Momo had kept away from Aina ever since the incident with the odachi, and Aina was very happy to have her friend back. It was even enough to push thoughts of her impending punishment, which had been ever-present over the last four days, completely out of her mind.