“Yappari! Ohisashiburi, Aina-san. Oh my gosh, you look just like you did the last time I saw you. So you became a meido. Yokatta,” Mari was blathering without thinking, trying to hold back the tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “Uwa, you even get to study under the famous Naomi-sama. I’m so jealous. Nee, we’re in a dai pinch here. Do you think you could convince Naomi-sama to help us out?”
“N—N—Naze should I help you?!” Aina blurted out. It was taking every ounce of control she had left not to leap over the fence and smash Mari’s face in. “I never wanted to see you again. Get out of here!”
“Hidoi, Aina-san!” Mari shouted. The tears began flowing in earnest. “When you disappeared that day, I thought I’d never see you again. I was worried about you, you know! Now that we’ve finally met again, this is how you treat me? I thought we were tomodachi!”
“Haa? You and me, tomodachi?” Aina recoiled. “You bullied me relentlessly—you went out of your way to bully me—and now you say you were my tomodachi?”
“Enough,” Naomi commanded. Aina looked up to see an embarrassed expression on Naomi’s face, an expression mirrored by the leader of the meido on the other side of the fence, who Naomi now addressed. “If it were up to me, I would drive you off, but my master is still eager to curry favor with yours.”
“So you’ll help us?” The leader of the other meido asked.
“No, I can’t ignore the possibility that this is a trap, so I will remain here to defend the mansion. I will provide you some guides, but I have conditions.”
“First, two of my people for each of yours. You’re just seven, right? No hidden compatriots?”
“If you are lying, it will not end well for you. Second,” Naomi said with a cruel smile, “Aina-san and Mari-san here will team up.”
“Naomi-sama!” Aina protested, but froze when Naomi cast a harsh glare in her direction. Aina had never been on a mission before, and Mari had still been in school when Aina became a meido. Sending two novice meido out together was a recipe for disaster.
“Relay my orders to the others, Aina-san. Tell them I want fourteen of our most experienced meido, including you and your robot friend, to report here, fully equipped, in ten minutes.” Aina and Sena were not among the mansion’s most experienced meido, but Naomi wasn’t going to let the outsiders know that. “Tell them that we’re hunting a deserter.”
Mari seemed absolutely ecstatic to be paired up with Aina. She didn’t even mind having a gynoid chaperone. Aina, on the other hand, was making no effort to hide her displeasure. The last 24 hours had been very emotionally trying, and she was running on little sleep.
Sena remained as expressionless as ever.
“Is she the Mari-san you told me about?” Sena asked quietly. Aina nodded. “She does not appear to be strong enough to bully you.”
“She’s one of the weakest people I know,” Aina said, “but our social positions were different.”
“Nee, nee, Aina-san, is this your tomodachi that Naomi-sama mentioned?” Mari asked. “Introduce me.”
“Fine,” Aina sighed. “Kochira wa Sena-chan.”
“Sena… chan? Isn’t she a gynoid?” Mari asked. “Just what kind of relationship do you two have?”
“It is exactly what you are thinking,” Sena joked, wrapping her arms around Aina from behind and cupping Aina’s chin upward.
“But—But that’s—” Mari whimpered.
“She’s joking,” Aina-explained, gently pulling Sena’s arms away. “As you can see, she’s a gynoid. She’s attempting to cultivate a sense of humor. It was a good joke, Sena-chan, but I’m not in the mood for that kind of comedy right now.”
“Oh, Aina-san. Don’t tell me you still have trouble making tomodachi,” Mari cooed. “Your only tomodachi these past three years has been this hen robot? That’s so kanashii.”
“Sena-chan is not hen, nor is she my only tomodachi. Demo, she is important to me, so I won’t let you make fun of her.”
“Gomen, I just assumed… It doesn’t matter. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, Sena-san,” said Mari, bowing to the gynoid. Sena remained silent. “Nee, Aina-san, shouldn’t you introduce me to her?”
“I already know who you are,” Sena informed her.
“Ara! So Aina-san told her new tomodachi about me. I’m—”
“She did not say anything positive,” Sena interrupted.
“Another joke?” Mari asked. Aina and Sena both remained silent. “Oh.”
“Listen up,” Naomi called to the group, who all snapped to attention. She held up a topographical map of the area around the mansion, with seven differently-colored lines drawn on it. “These are the routes you are to take. Memorize them. Proceed under the assumption that the target is still within this area, and keep your guard up. If you find her, send up a flare immediately before engaging. Do not attempt to engage her without calling for backup. The target is unusually strong for a deserter. Take no chances. The operation will start on my signal. Is anyone not yet ready?” All the groups were already assembled in their starting positions, and nobody objected. “Go.”
The seven groups simultaneously took off along their assigned routes, which took them into and out of the forest surrounding the Wright estate. The operation relied on each group sticking to an assigned speed. If the target heard a group approaching, she would flee towards one of the other groups. Additionally, the patterns would ensure that no group was too far from another for very long, as long as the groups stuck to their assigned speeds, allowing backup to arrive quickly.
Sena was the pacesetter for her group, and Aina and Mari followed closely behind in a triangle formation. Gynoids weren’t the fastest runners, but even so, Aina was surprised that Mari was keeping up with the group. She had always refused to participate in P.E. classes, and hadn’t been very athletic.
“Mari-san, exactly how strong is the target?” Aina asked, partially to see if Mari would be able to keep pace and talk at the same time.
“Shh,” Mari replied, “we don’t want her to find us before we find her.”
“If the target is an experienced meido, ni novices and a gynoid have very little chance of sneaking up on her,” Aina said.
“Jya…” Mari trailed off.
“Hai, this grouping was designed to be noticed. Either to drive her towards another group, or to lure her as bait,” Aina said.
“Our housekeeper…” Mari muttered.
“What about your housekeeper?” Aina asked.
“The target is our housekeeper.”
“The strongest of the prime minister’s meido,” Sena clarified.
“Was Naomi-sama informed of this?” Aina asked.
“Probably not,” Mari admitted. “Oh, Aina-san, you have to keep it a naisho!”
Aina let out a string of expletives a ten-year old ought not to know. Karin would have been proud, but Mari was taken aback.
“The prime minister’s housekeeper has to be what, the second most powerful meido after Naomi-sama?” Aina said after she collected herself.
“That analysis is incorrect,” Sena informed her. “I can think of at least three candidates for that title, and none of them are employed by the prime minister. Furthermore, the prime minister has not invested the same kind of time or budget into his house staff as goshujin-sama has. There are likely half a dozen stronger meido serving the Wright estate.” Half a dozen. Which meant, of course, that Aina wasn’t one of them.
“We need to abort the operation,” Aina proclaimed. “We need to let Naomi-sama know so she can come up with a better plan.”
“Iie,” Sena asserted. “Naomi-sama is a very paranoid hito. She formulated this plan assuming that the housekeeper was the target.”
“That’s just speculation,” Aina protested.
“Irrelevant. Naomi-sama placed me in charge of this group, and I am making a command decision to continue. Ki ni shinaide. I will not let you get hurt.” Aina knew that she wouldn’t, so she dropped her objection.
“The gynoid is in charge?!” Mari almost shrieked.
“Normally, I would be in charge,” Aina explained. “Demo, I have to deal with some emotional baggage on this ninmu, so Sena-chan is the logical choice.”
“Ah,” was all Mari could say in reply. “Speaking of that, Aina-san, I didn’t realize that was how you felt about me. Gomen nasai!” She tried to bow while running and almost fell face first to the ground. Aina caught her by the arm and yanked her upright, careful not to harm her too much.
“How else could I possibly feel about you? You were the worst of my bullies. At least the other kids left me alone after a while, but you never missed a chance to torment me.”
“I only did it because I liked you, Aina-san.”
“Cut the tsundere crap.”
“Hontou! You know we weren’t allowed to befriend you. The adults made sure we treated you as an outcast. Soshite, they told us anyone who got close to you would become an outcast too. I just… You were so kawaii, and I admired how you never backed down, but you never hurt us either, even though it would have been so easy for you. After you disappeared, I always remembered your strength. When my parents sold me to the prime minister, I tried my best to become strong like you. I… looked up to you, I guess. I just wanted to be with you as much as possible, and the only way I was allowed to do that was if I bullied you.”
“That’s sick,” Aina choked. Now tears were starting to form in her eyes.
“It’s not! I—”
“Did you ever stop to think about how I felt? I was lonely, Mari-san.”
“And I was trying to save you from that loneliness! If I didn’t bully you, no one else would, and then you’d have nobody to talk to.”
“Well you only made me feel worse,” Aina said. The tears were now running down her cheeks. “Much worse. If you wanted to be my tomodachi, then you should have been my tomodachi. Maybe they would have made you an outcast, but we would have been outcasts together.”
“Gomen,” Mari apologized, now crying as well. “I wasn’t strong enough to be an outcast, and my father—”
Mari was cut off by the ringing sound of metal clashing against metal, followed by a deafening explosion. A flare went up. No, hundreds of flares went up at the same time, all across the forest. It would be impossible to tell which one was real. Sena whipped around and grabbed Mari by the collar.
“Does she have allies?” Sena inquired. “How many?”
“None that I know of.”
“Have we been betrayed? Is this a trap?” Sena followed up. She unsheathed the blade from her broom and held it to Mari’s throat.
“Doko did all the flares come from?” Sena demanded.
“Shirimasen!” Mari said. “She’s been missing for days. Maybe she planted them to throw off the hunt.”
“Does Naomi-sama know this?” Sena pressed the blade closer to Mari’s throat.
“Tabun,” Mari whimpered. Sena released her, but kept her blade in hand.
“Aina-chan,” Sena ordered, “climb to the top of one of the trees and tell me if you can see anything. Be careful not to get sniped.”
Without a word, Aina leapt to the lowest branch of the nearest tree, and then leapt again to a higher branch. After a few jumps, she reached the top of the tree, about thirty meters up. The sun was setting, and the smoke from all the flares obscured her vision. She could see black smoke rising from where the explosion had occurred, but she couldn’t hear any fighting. The target must have used the explosion to escape. Unless she had more flares, which seemed unlikely, the target would probably try to slip out of the forest undetected, so Aina concentrated her search on the closest trails leading out of the forest.
It paid off. Although brief, Aina caught glimpses of a person moving quickly but carefully down one of the trails, towards a clearing near the edge of the forest. Without hesitation, she dropped the thirty meters to the forest floor and pointed in the direction of the clearing.
“Stay quiet, and watch for traps,” Sena instructed them as she sheathed her sword.
The three of them proceeded as quietly as possible, and a few minutes later found themselves at the edge of the clearing. Sena signaled for them to stop and observe.
Moments later, the target appeared at another entrance to the clearing. Crossing it would be risky, but so would backtracking or crashing through the underbrush to go around it, and the longer she stayed in the forest, the more likely she was to get caught. She decided to go for it, sprinting across the clearing as fast as she could.
“Hiroko-sama!” Mari called out to her. Aina and Sena instinctively dived to the ground and rolled in opposite directions away from Mari, who sprang from her spot and ran towards the deserting meido.
Aina readied a few coasters and prepared to use them to cover Mari’s approach, but Sena grabbed her wrist, stopping her.
“She is still your teki, is she not? Let her die first. We can attack afterwards.”