“Fai-” Chikako called out.
“-to!” the group behind her chanted.
“Fai-” she called again.
“-to!” they responded in unison.
A group of around thirty meido and one butler were jogging laps around a track in the courtyard. Every biological member of the household staff was participating, save Naomi’s group of six, the three meido who had just completed the night watch, and the three currently on guard duty. Even the cooking staff were present, leaving their gynoid assistants to watch over the breakfast, which would be served in just over half an hour. Sena had left Aina with the group, promising to return for her after breakfast.
Thanks to Sena’s efforts, they had completed the shoe cleaning well ahead of schedule. Although her own contributions were modest, Aina was proud of the work they had done and could not help but feel disappointed that they were now all running on a dusty track, undoing that hard work after such a short time. Despite that, she was very impressed at how comfortable running in these shoes felt. Although they resembled flat heel dress shoes, they felt more like sneakers.
One thing Aina wasn’t impressed with, however, was the pace of their jogging. Although instructed to stay near the middle of the group, she had to concentrate to run at such a slow pace. When she let her mind wander for a few moments, she would pass two or three others before she realized it. They hadn’t completed a single lap when Aina found herself jogging next to Chikako in front of the group.
“Aina-san, I ordered you to stay in the group,” Chikako patiently reminded Aina when she noticed the younger girl’s presence.
“Chikako-onee-san, can I go ahead?” Aina asked. “I’m not getting any exercise like this.” As if to reinforce her point, Aina turned around and began walking backwards ahead of Chikako, all while effortlessly pulling ahead of the group.
“You don’t need to get any exercise. This is just a warm up.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not a warmup for me. Here, I’ll show you what a warm up looks like for me.” And with that, Aina turned and began running across the track in long, leisurely strides, quickly distancing herself from the group. Chikako watched her go for a few seconds before raising her hand to quiet the chants of “faito!” which had continued without her.
“Momo-san, Mimi-san, teach her a lesson,” she commanded.
Without acknowledging the order, two lithe meido broke from the pack and raced towards Aina. Only a few years older than Aina, these meido had fluffy black hair, which made it difficult to see the small black cat ears atop their heads. Their long black tails, which emerged from holes in the backs of their dresses, were much more conspicuous. In contrast to Aina’s long, leisurely strides, these two ran with lightning-fast steps, and quickly closed in on the unsuspecting Aina.
“Kakugo!” Momo roared, as she leapt to pounce on Aina. Taken by surprise, Aina instinctively dodged by jumping into the air, leaving herself vulnerable to Mimi’s strike.
When determined to do so, Aina could clear a 2.5 meter barrier with a single jump, and although this was impossible by human standards, the two catgirls now pursuing her could easily jump twice as high. Aina didn’t even make it 1 meter off the ground before Mimi grabbed her in midair and the two tumbled back to the ground. Aina landed on her back, Mimi atop her.
“Hanase!” Aina yelled, pushing Mimi off her. Mimi was unprepared for the young girl’s strength, and was sent flying by the push. Momo moved in to restrain Aina, but Aina had already scrambled to her feet and had begun running away from the duo at full speed. The catgirls gave chase, and as fast as Aina was, they quickly caught up with her.
This time, Aina turned to meet her opponents head on. As Mimi lunged at her, Aina grabbed her by the arm and spun around once, throwing her back towards Momo, who effortlessly dodged the oncoming Mimi and smacked Aina on the side of the head. This time, it was Aina who was unprepared for her opponent’s strength, and she fell to the ground, rolling to her feet to find herself surrounded by her two opponents. Aina stepped to the side to try to make her way around, but the catgirls matched her movements.
Hoping to break past her, Aina rushed at Momo, who batted at Aina’s head. Although the strike was quick, Aina ducked under it, and would have made it past Momo, had Mimi not grabbed Aina’s leg from behind, causing her to fall once more. In a flash, Aina was back on her feet, and she turned to attack Mimi, but Momo shoved her from behind. Aina lost her balance and teetered towards Mimi, who shoved her back towards Momo.
As the catgirls kept pushing Aina around, they began to emit deep, rumbling purring sounds from their throats. Aina recognized their behavior as being like cats playing with their prey before the kill. The smiles alighting their faces convinced Aina that she didn’t have long before they delivered the killing blow, and she began to panic.
“Tasukete!” Aina screamed, closing her eyes and throwing her hands up to shield herself. Suddenly, she felt herself get pulled off the ground by her collar, and opening her eyes, found herself face to face with Chikako. A few of the older meido in the jogging group were restraining Mimi and Momo in a similar manner.
“Iie, Aina-san, you don’t understand. When I give you an order, you obey it,” Chikako spat, tossing Aina back into the middle of the group. “If you have a problem with our exercise regimen, we can discuss it later.” She turned to the catgirls and said, “Good work futari tomo. Fall in. We only have one lap left. Fai-”
“-to!” the group responded, and they began jogging again. Aina did her best to maintain her position. Whenever she began to pull ahead, Momo gently pushed her back into place. A few minutes later, they came to a stop on the side of the track opposite the mansion.
“You, go get changed,” Chikako ordered Aina and the catgirls. “There are spare uniforms in the doujou,” she added, pointing to a large building about 40 meters away. Aina, Momo, and Mimi ran towards the doujou as the rest of the meido began their calisthenics routine.
“I’m Aina, by the way,” Aina introduced herself as they entered the doujou. “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
“And I’m Mimi.”
“Yoroshiku onyagaishimasu.” they recited in tandem.
“I never thought I’d get to meet a nekomimi,” Aina gushed as they entered the changing room. “Let alone ni nekomimi.”
“We’re futago,” Mimi explained.
“I never thought we’d meet a ningen who could almost match our speed,” Momo blurted out.
“Except for Nyaomi-sama,” Mimi added.
“Nyaomi-sama’s no ningen. She’s a bakemono,” Momo joked.
“Don’t say that!” Mimi cautioned. “What if she hears you?”
“Don’t worry,” Aina reassured her, “Naomi-sama is asleep in her bed. She came back from a ninmu just hours ago.” This did not seem to reassure Mimi, who hurried to change.
A naturally shy girl, Aina would normally have turned away as Mimi undressed, but the sight of Mimi’s tail emerging from her naked back transfixed Aina, and it wasn’t until Momo nudged her in the back—in the location where her own tail would grow if she had one—that Aina realized she was staring. Blood rushing to her cheeks, she turned away from them both and quickly changed her clothes.
“Momo-san, I—” Aina began to apologize, as she turned back to face the others.
“Save it,” Momo cut her off. “We’ve got to get back or we’ll be in trouble. Besides, we know you were just curious.”
“Nyani?” Mimi asked, confused, but Momo had already rushed out of the room, and Aina, too embarrassed to explain, ran after her.
The rest of the morning progressed smoothly. Aina introduced herself to her new colleagues at breakfast, who were all very friendly. Afterwards, she helped to clear the tables and wash the dishes before Sena arrived to collect her.
“What you did out there was not smart,” Sena remarked as they walked down a hallway.
“You know about that?” Aina asked, looking at the ground.
“I would not be very good at my job if I did not. May I offer you some career advice?”
“Chikako-sama is a very important meido in this mansion. You should do your best to stay on her good side.”
“I will. Arigatou for the advice.”
They soon arrived at one of the mansion’s many supply closets, where Sena commandeered a feather duster, broom, and dustpan for each of them. Aina’s were sized appropriately for her small body and did not contain the concealed weapons of their full-sized counterparts. After showing Aina how to fasten them to her uniform in the manner of a meido, they set off to clean the library.
The two of them spent the rest of the morning dusting and sweeping various rooms around the mansion. During this time, Aina noticed that the only other meido she saw cleaning were gynoids. Although they moved naturally, they looked identical to Sena, making them easy to identify. They always gave slight bows when passing Aina in the hall, which Aina always returned.
Aside from the gynoids, the mansion was mostly empty. A few meido labored in the kitchen preparing lunch, but most had gathered in the doujou for training, and a few had been sent out on a mission. Aina wouldn’t begin training in the doujou for another three months, and it would be years before she was sent on her first mission.
At 4:30, Sena escorted Aina to a door at the end of one of the hallways. Before she could knock on the door, a voice from the other side bade them to enter. Sena opened the door and ushered Aina into Naomi’s office. It was a small room with a window facing the courtyard. Next to the window, Naomi and Chikako sat across from each other at a small round table, sipping tea.
“Good afternoon, Mme Aina,” Naomi greeted as they entered.
“Gokigenyou, Naomi-sama,” Aina said with a curtsey. “Did you sleep well?”
“Very well, thank you. Please, have a seat,” she gestured to an empty chair next to her. Aina did not sit immediately, but turned towards Chikako.
“Chikako-sama, about this morning… Gomen,” Aina apologized, bowing deeply. Chikako reached over and lifted Aina on to the chair Naomi had offered.
“Why don’t you join us for ocha?” Chikako offered with a cold smile on her face. “That way, we’ll have plenty of time to discuss your behavior.” Aina felt a chill run up her spine, but it dissipated when Naomi placed a reassuring hand on Aina’s shoulder.
“Would you prefer café au lait instead?” Naomi asked. Aina hesitated. Surely such an obviously French drink would have been outlawed long ago, and yet Naomi had calmly spoken its name aloud.
“Ocha will be ii. Arigatou.” Chikako lifted a teapot from the table and poured some tea into Aina’s cup.
“How are you doing on your first day?” Naomi asked once Aina had taken a few sips of tea. “Are you having any trouble adjusting to your new home?”
“I caused a scene during morning exercise,” Aina admitted sheepishly.
“Yes, I know all about that,” Naomi stated, taking a sip of her coffee, “but I’m more interested in any problems you are having, not problems you’re causing others.”
“I haven’t had any mondai at all. Everyone’s been so nice. It’s not like school at all.” Naomi and Chikako let that last statement pass. They both knew of Aina’s state-mandated problems fitting in at school.
“That’s rare,” Naomi observed. “Most young girls have a lot of problems when they first arrive. They find the work too difficult and they get homesick. Most of them throw a tantrum or two on their first day.”
“I haven’t thrown any tantrums,” Aina proudly declared.
“You threw a small tantrum this morning,” Sena corrected. She had been standing next to the doorway the entire time. The three of them turned to look at her, Aina embarrassed that she had forgotten about her friend, Naomi and Chikako surprised that a gynoid had spoken out of turn.
“What kind of tantrum?” Naomi asked.
“She complained that her training schedule was like being in the guntai.”
“Translation please,” Naomi requested.
“’Guntai’ means army, as you well know,” Chikako answered.
“I suppose I can’t blame you,” Naomi said, hearing only what she wanted from Chikako and ignoring the rest. “It is rather like the army, isn’t it?” Aina brought her right hand next to her head, her palm facing towards Naomi.
“Sir, yes sir!” She joked.
“Very good soldier,” Naomi laughed. “At ease. No other complaints?”
“I do miss my parents,” Aina answered, “but Sena-chan has kept me very busy, so I haven’t had time to dwell on it. And the work is hard, but it’s not too hard.”
“Who is Sena?” Naomi asked with a puzzled look on her face. “I don’t know anyone in the mansion by that name.” Sena coughed quietly to draw attention to herself. “Oh, you mean the gynoid? Did you… give it a name?”
“Iie, she already had one. They all have one. Nee? Aina looked at Sena, who merely nodded.
“My, even at my age, it’s still possible to learn new things,” Naomi cooed, placing her left hand on her cheek. “Don’t we live in such a wondrous world?”
Saying nothing, Sena bowed to Naomi.
“If I may change the subject,” Chikako cut in, “did you learn anything from this morning’s incident, Aina-chan?”
“Hai,” Aina replied, looking down at her teacup, “always follow orders, even if you order me to surrender Vietnam to the ‘Muricans and the Soviets.” Naomi shot Chikako a questioning glance, but Chikako just shrugged her shoulders.
“That’s an important lesson,” Chikako confirmed. “Anything else?”
“Etou, nekomimi are sugoi?”
“Iie. Well they are, but that’s not the lesson you should take from this,” Chikako said. “The lesson is that it’s important to stay with the group. No matter how strong you may be alone, you are much stronger as a group. Many in the group this morning would have found it as difficult as you did to handle those two koneko alone, but they were able to easily subdue them together.”
“Protect your comrades and your comrades will protect you,” Naomi added. Aina, who had turned to look at Naomi as she spoke, narrowed her eyes and glared at the housekeeper. “Is there a problem young lady?”
“Only if you’re a Soviet, Naomi-sama,” Aina threatened.
“My political views may be to the left of the current government, but I’m certainly no Soviet. What gave you that impression?”
“You said ‘comrade.’”
“Of course. You’ll have to forgive this old lady. My manner of speaking must seem archaic to you, but I’m just too old to change my ways.” Aina looked to Chikako, who nodded, and Aina relaxed.
“You don’t look that old to me, Naomi-sama,” Aina stated, “but Sena-chan said you’re older than minna in this mansion.”
“Much older,” Naomi boasted. “After me, our master is the oldest, and when I was his age, Paris was still an independent city-state. Actually, it was still independent when I was twice his age.”
“More than double,” Chikako added. “He’s turning san-jyuu-go-sai next month.”
“Sugoi,” was all Aina could manage.
“Isn’t it?” Chikako agreed. “We should do our best to follow her example.”
“That means,” Aina said breathlessly, “that you’re at least hyaku-jyuu-san-sai.”
“Very good,” Naomi praised. “In my nearly hundred and twenty years, I’ve met very few seven year-olds who could do that calculation in their heads.”
“Sugoi,” Aina repeated, oblivious to the praise. “Will you teach me how to live that long?”
“There’s no secret to it. All you have to do is dedicate yourself mind and body to your meidou training.”
“And then I can live to be hyaku-ni-jyuu-sai?!”
“Only if you can survive,” Chikako interrupted. “Only a handful of meido have ever lived abnormally long lives. If it were that easy, there would be thousands.”
“Goshujin-sama is only in his thirties,” Aina realized aloud, “and he’s older than all the meido except Naomi-sama. Is the training that dangerous?”
“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Naomi warned. “Many meido live well past thirty-four years of age, but I am the only one who lives in this mansion.”
“Naze is that?” Aina asked.
“Most of them are on extended assignment, and the others have all been transferred to branch families.”
“And naze is that?” Aina pressed.
“Meido for the branch families are supplied by the main family, in order to ensure that—”
“Iie, I mean, why have all the older meido been sent away?”
“Ah, well,” Naomi said, “I suppose you could say it’s a matter of preference.”
“You mean goshujin-sama is—”
“Hai, sokomade,” Chikako extended her arm in front of Aina as if to prevent her from moving forward. “There are lots of rumors about goshujin-sama, none of which are true. Let’s not start another.”
“Spoilsport,” Naomi teased.
“But then naze?” Aina asked.
“I know it sounds cliché,” Chikako sighed, “but you’ll learn about it when you’re older. Suffice it to say, it’s not as bad as you think.”
“When I’m older?” Aina shot back. “That makes it sound worse than I thought.”
“At any rate,” Naomi said, steering the conversation back on topic, “It’s true that most meido do not live half as long as I have, but I have high hopes for you, Aina. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but I think you have what it takes to become an elite meido, so work hard and don’t disappoint me, OK?”
“Hai!” Aina exclaimed, jumping down from her chair and kneeling before Naomi. “I will ganbatte!” Naomi opened her mouth to speak, but Chikako cut her off.
“Don’t even pretend you don’t know that word. I know you know that word.”
“I wasn’t going to,” Naomi huffed. “You should get back to work now, Aina. I will see you this evening.” Aina exchanged gokigenyous with the two older meido before being escorted out of the room by Sena. When they were sure she was out of earshot, Naomi and Chikako resumed their conversation.
“You’ve certainly brought an interesting girl to the mansion. This old lady is impressed for once,” Naomi complimented.
“Don’t you think she seems a little too smart for her age?”
“Her intelligence is above average, certainly, but not genius-level, and in many ways, she is still a little girl.
“I’m starting to regret scouting her.”
“Oh, why would that be?”
“She might be dangerous to us.”
“In what way?”
“I… I promised goshujin-sama I wouldn’t discuss it with anyone, especially not you, Naomi-sama.”
“And yet here you are, discussing it with me.”
“Iie, I’m not telling you anything goshujin-sama forbade me to tell you.”
“So you’re upholding the letter of the law, but not the spirit.”
“I’m not stupid, Naomi-sama. If there’s a threat, it’s better that you know about it.”
“I still don’t see how she could be dangerous.”
“Well, she does seem to exert some influence over the gynoids,” Chikako offered.
“I can’t deny that. One of the gynoids came to see me an hour ago and demanded that I approve an exercise hour for the girl, claiming the morning session will not be sufficient for her health and growth. Demanded! I’ve never seen one of those machines insist on anything so forcefully before.”
“Was it the one with her just now?”
“I have no idea. Can you tell them apart?”
“Iie, and I didn’t know they had names either,” Chikako admitted.
“I don’t think any of us did, except Mme Aina, of course.”
“Which is strange, if you think about it. Naming things is a very human thing to do.”
“They’re just so creepy. Naming them doesn’t feel right,” Naomi mused.
Chikako nodded in agreement and placed her cup on the table. “I should get back to work too. Thank you for the ocha, Naomi-sama.”
“Any time,” Naomi waved dismissively. Chikako walked to the door, but paused when Naomi called out to her. “What was that Vietnam thing all about?” Naomi asked.