“Osu,” Karin greeted Chikako as she waltzed into the servants’ entrance. Chikako was scowling at her, but Karin pretended not to notice, keeping a wide grin on her face.
“Don’t ‘osu’ me,” nagged Chikako. “Doko’s Aina-san?”
“I thought she was here,” Karin replied. “Didn’t she come back last night?”
“She didn’t, and you were supposed to keep an eye on her,” Chikako accused, pointing a gloved finger at Karin’s chest.
“So what?” Karin scoffed, brushing the hand away. “She can take care of herself.”
“Can she? Really? She broke a table last night. Who knows what else she’ll do?”
“You know about that?” Karin asked, mildly surprised.
“The woman who owns that… establishment came here in the middle of the night to deliver the bill herself, and to loudly protest your behavior. You’re lucky that she didn’t wake goshujin-sama. You’re going to be in enough trouble as-is.”
“As if. You know he lets me have my fun. Even pays for it.”
“Not this time,” predicted Chikako. “Maybe if it had been you who broke the table, he would have let it slide, pursed his lips and doled out the cash. Demo, you took Aina-chan to that place, and she caused trouble. You were a bad influence on her, and I don’t think he’ll take that lightly. You left her to her own devices while she was in an delicate emotional state. I’m worried about what she might do to herself. Or worse, what she might do to someone else. What if she decides to take it out on Chichibu shrine?”
“Yeaaah, I can see your point,” Karin admitted. “She was pretty wasted. I probably shouldn’t have left her alone.”
“You got her drunk for the first time in her life,” Chikako said evenly, “and then you abandoned her in the middle of the machi. Naze would you do that?”
“If you had seen the thighs on—”
“Of course,” Chikako rolled her eyes. “We still don’t know exactly what Aina-chan is, but we know she’s powerful, and that she has trouble controlling her strength. She could slip up while drunk and level an entire block, but that’s a fair trade for a nice pair of thighs.”
“Ni pairs of thighs,” Karin corrected, sheepishly.
“Oh, that makes it better,” Chikako sarcastically replied.
“A virgin like you couldn’t possibly understand,” Karin shot back. “Besides, I know you’re just jealous. You’ve had the hots for me ever since we were teenagers.”
“That’s not true,” Chikako informed her. “I’m straight, but you’re my to—my nakama, and I’ve always worried about you. Demo, that’s not important right now, we—”
“I’d ship it,” they both heard Naomi say as she appeared behind Chikako, as if from nowhere. “Unfortunately for us both, Mme Karin, Mme Chikako really is straight.”
“Naomi-sama, have you heard from Aina-chan?” Chikako asked.
“Relax, she’ll be here in a few minutes. She’s fine, which is more than I can say for you, Mme Karin.”
“Boku?” Karin asked innocently. “Naze?”
“I didn’t give you the night off so you could go drink and get laid,” Naomi said reproachfully. “I told you to cheer Mme Aina up, to show her that her life isn’t over just because she got dumped, and to be a positive role model to a young woman just coming to grips with her sexual orientation.”
“If you wanted a positive role model, you sure came to the wrong onna,” Karin quipped.
“Quite,” Naomi agreed.
“You got me. I went too far this time,” Karin admitted. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t think I’ll have to do anything,” Naomi said, smiling her trademark cruel smile. “I think Mme Chikako is right. When our master finds out, he’s going to hit the roof.”
“He doesn’t have to know,” Karin tried. “You could tell him I broke the table. He’ll chuckle like he always does every time I screw up, whip out his checkbook, and spend a few minutes reminiscing about the misspent youth he never had, just like he always does.”
“Iie,” Chikako said solemnly. “I don’t know why he tolerates your antics, but that kind of place is no place for a meido from a good house. It’s not good for you, it’s not good for his reputation, and I’m going to put a stop to it.”
“Whatever,” Karin waved her off. “He’s too much of a wuss to do anything. You’ll see. I’m more worried about what Naomi-sama’s will do to me.”
“You may be right about that,” Naomi conceded. “By the way, I’m going to borrow Mme Aina this morning.”
“Iie, you can’t,” Chikako gasped. “She’s on duty, and you’re already taking Jin-chan, so I don’t have anyone to fill in for her.”
“Just give it up already,” advised Naomi. “How many years have you been pushing Mme Jin as a probationary parlor meido? Our master obviously doesn’t want her serving in that role.” She held up a hand before Chikako could object. “Our master is coming along as well, so you don’t have to worry about it. Just let the shift go unwomanned this morning.”
“What if a guest arrives? There will be nobody to greet them,” Chikako protested, as Karin snuck off to the kitchen to steal some food.
“There’s still a sniper on duty,” Naomi joked. “She can take care of any guests.”
Naomi, Jin, Tsukasa, and Aina all arrived at the servants’ entrance to the prime minister’s mansion precisely at the agreed-upon time, where they were greeted by Mari and an older Meido. Aina thought she looked to be in her early forties, but you never could tell with meido—she could be almost as old as Naomi. She had amber hair tied up in a bun, and a weary expression on her face.
“Youkoso, Naomi-sama-tachi,” the older meido welcomed them with a bow.
“Good morning to you, Mme Otome, Mme Mari,” Naomi returned the greeting. Jin, Tsukasa, and Aina bowed silently.
“Ara,” Otome gasped, bringing her hand up to cover to her mouth. “You remembered me after all these years, Naomi-sama. I’m honored.”
“I make a point of keeping tabs on anyone who might someday become an exceptional meido,” explained Naomi. “Though if I’m being honest, you fell out of that category a decade ago.”
“Hai,” Otome replied quietly. She couldn’t help but note, bitterly, that although she hadn’t seen Naomi for nearly thirty years, Naomi looked like she hadn’t aged a day, while she had grown from a youthful teenager to a tired, disillusioned, middle-aged woman.
“Even so,” Naomi continued, “I will always remember that look of unbridled ambition in your eyes the first time we met. It’s a shame you lost it.”
“Gomen that you got dragged into this petty challenge,” Otome tried to change the subject. “It’s all because I couldn’t enforce discipline properly.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Naomi reassured her. “I enjoy these little events. It breaks up the monotony. Besides, I’m partially to blame for encouraging Mme Mari to push her boundaries.” Naomi gestured to the door, and Otome ushered them all inside.
As the oldest living meido, not to mention the strongest, Naomi was treated with the utmost respect by other meido whenever she visited a mansion. That respect entailed the housekeeper inviting Naomi to teach a short class in her stead, and it was for this reason that Naomi had brought Jin and Tsukasa. The three of them stood together at one end of the courtyard, facing the assembled meido on the other end. Aina stood with Otome and Mari off to the side.
Normally, these lessons would be held in the mansion’s doujou, but today, they were being held outside for the benefit of their audience. On a second-story veranda of the Japanese-style mansion, looking down on the courtyard, sat four goshujin: the prime minister, Akira, and two men Aina didn’t recognize. It was for their entertainment that the meido stood on bare dirt instead of kneeling on mats.
“I have been informed,” Naomi spoke loudly enough for the goshujin to hear, “that some of your recent missions have been hampered by a lack of teamwork. Further, that some of you question whether things would have gone better had you worked as a team.” Naomi had been resting her hands on the pommel of a bokken, blade out, with the tip digging into the dirt. She lifted the bokken slightly and slammed it back into the ground. “Send out the strongest two doubters.”
Half of the meido in the group appeared to be teenagers, and the other half appeared to be in their twenties or early thirties. It was two from the group of younger women who stepped forward in response. Jin and Tsukasa also stepped forward, a bokken in each hand. They each offered a bokken to the girls who had come forward, keeping one for themselves.
“One-on-one,” Naomi ordered. Jin, Tsukasa, and the two girls bowed to each other. “Begin.”
The matches were one-sided in favor of the doubters. Although Tsukasa caught her opponent off-guard with her tremendous strength, knocking the bokken from her hand, the girl was able to dodge the follow up attack and position herself behind Tsukasa, striking her lightly in the back.
Jin lasted a little longer, keeping her opponent at bay with well-timed parries. However, it didn’t take long for Jin’s opponent to realize she could overpower Jin with her strength. With one mighty slash of her sword, she knocked Jin’s sword aside and forced her to jump backward, leaving her vulnerable to a follow up thrust. In both cases, the doubters had been able to figure out and exploit Jin and Tsukasa’s weaknesses.
“Good,” Naomi called out. A murmur broke out among the prime minister’s meido. They were surprised that two of their own could defeat the great Naomi-sama’s students so easily. Jin and Tsukasa didn’t seem disturbed as they walked towards each other. “Two-on-two,” Naomi ordered. Again, the participants bowed to each other, and then Jin quickly ran behind Tsukasa and turned to face Naomi so that she and Tsukasa were back to back. “Begin.”
The smart thing to do would have been to split up and surround them, but that would have required coordination and teamwork. Instead, the girl who had defeated Tsukasa stepped forward, this time prepared for Tsukasa’s strength. Their bokken clacked together, but she kept her hold this time and parried Tsukasa’s next strike, leaving Tsukasa’s left side open.
As she struck at Tsukasa’s left side, Tsukasa backflipped over Jin, who spun around to parry the attack before pivoting back around behind Tsukasa. The girl backed off, and her teammate grabbed her by the shoulder and pushed her to the side as she advanced on Tsukasa.
Switching from defense to offense, Tsukasa charged her new attacker, shouting “Hora! Hora! Hora!” and pushing her back. This girl was also unprepared for Tsukasa’s strength, jumping away as she dropped her sword. She dodged Tsukasa’s sword and rolled to grab her own, but when she righted herself, Tsukasa was silently charging back towards Jin, preparing to strike the other doubter, who was now attacking Jin.
Tsukasa had changed directions in an instant, not in response to a verbal instruction from Jin, but in response to a slight push from Jin’s spiritual energy. It had taken a lot of work between them to figure out how to communicate this way effectively, but as a result, Jin could use Tsukasa like a human funnel.
“Look out!” the meido who had been pushed back called, racing after Tsukasa. The other girl turned just in time to see Tsukasa approaching, but as soon as she took her eyes off Jin, Jin thrust her bokken, poking the girl in the side. It was now two on one, and Jin and Tsukasa quickly took up positions on opposite sides of their remaining opponent and began closing the distance in sync.
The doubter kept her eyes on Jin, and at the very last second, she turned and charged at Tsukasa, hoping to catch her by surprise. Jin, however, had foreseen this, and nudged Tsukasa out of the way, launching herself at her opponent at the same time. Both Jin and Tsukasa brought their bokken down on their opponent from a safe angle, ending the match.
“You may go,” Naomi dismissed the prime minister’s meido. They handed the bokken back to Jin and Tsukasa, bowed to Naomi, and rejoined the group. “If you learn one thing from this demonstration, I hope it is that it is better to work with your teammates than against them. But that is not to say that teamwork will always prevail. Mme Otome, if you would please.”
Otome stepped forward and accepted the bokken from Naomi and walked over to face Jin and Tsukasa. The three bowed to each other.
“Begin,” Naomi said once again.
It was over in an instant. With one quick swipe, she knocked the bokken from Tsukasa’s grip, catching it with her left hand, and brought both of her bokken down on their heads. Jin could see what was going to happen, but she couldn’t move quickly enough to prevent it. Without saying a word, Otome returned the bokken to Tsukasa and Naomi, bowed, and walked back to the sidelines.
“As you can see,” Naomi explained. “Teamwork is no guarantee of success. It can help make you stronger, but if you rely on it, you will be vulnerable if your team falls. Survival comes from individual strength. Concentrate foremost on becoming stronger, but don’t forget to practice working well together. This lesson is concluded. Now, let’s get to the fun part.”
Otome and Mari stood facing each other in the middle of the courtyard, behind them were weapon racks containing real meido weapons. This was, on paper, a fight to the death, though in practice, Naomi would call an end to it before anyone sustained serious injuries. The only rules were that they would begin when Naomi gave the signal, and stop when she called the match. Other than that, anything was permitted.
Naomi held two small flags in her left hand, one red and one white. Her right hand was raised over her head, arm straight.
“Iza jinjou ni,” she shouted loud enough to get the attention of all in the vicinity, and Aina couldn’t help but notice that she had no trouble pronouncing those Japanese words. Naomi looked first to Otome, then to Mari, and then up to the veranda, where the four goshujin raised their glasses to signal their approval. She swung her hand to the ground. “Shobu.”