The door was indistinguishable from all the others in the mansion, but in Aina’s mind, it was larger and more ominous than any door she had ever seen.
“What are you waiting for?” Sena asked, but Aina did not move.
“I’m too embarrassed to go in there,” Aina admitted, not taking her eyes off the door.
“I’ve never been naked in front of anyone before.”
“What about this morning in the doujou?”
“I kept my underwear on.”
“You are going to have to get over it if you want to bathe in this mansion.”
“Will you come with me?” Aina pleaded, still looking directly at the door.
“This morning you did not want me present when you disrobed,” Sena reminded her. “Besides, I do not need to bathe.”
“Are you nervous, Mme Aina?” came Naomi’s voice from directly behind Aina, startling the young girl. She had not noticed Naomi’s approach. “I can sympathize,” Naomi reassured her, placing her hands on Aina’s shoulders and gently guiding her towards the door. “I was mortified when I learned they were adding a public bath to the mansion, but it turned out to be quite nice.”
“It would be a lot nicer with some beautiful girls,” came another voice, which Aina identified as Masa’s.
“Mme Karin, I hope you realize that you sound like a dirty old man when you say things like that,” Naomi admonished, using Masa’s real name.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Karin smirked. “Dirty old men have the most fun. But I guess you wouldn’t know that, since you’re too good for that kind of manga.”
“What kind of manga?” Aina asked innocently.
“The kind you shouldn’t read until you’re older. Much older,” Naomi explained.
“So you do know what I’m talking about!” Karin cackled. “I thought you hated everything from Japan.”
“If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles,” Naomi quoted.
“Sure,” Karin chuckled, “I’m sure you use them to ‘know yourself’ all the time. You saucy old—”
Aina didn’t see Naomi move, not even a twitch, but she heard the sound of the slap hitting Karin’s cheek, and she jumped out of the way as Karin fell to the floor.
“Be quiet,” Naomi hissed. “There’s an impressionable child present.”
“My bad,” Karin admitted, climbing back to her feet. “My tongue was moving faster than my brain.”
“You’d be a decent meido if it weren’t for that dirty mouth of yours,” Naomi admonished. “I have half a mind to clean it out with soap.”
“You already tried that, remember?”
“How could I forget? The suds were completely ineffective against the grime built up by cocktails and—”
“Hey, hey!” Karin shouted, putting her hands over Aina’s ears. “There’s an impressionable child present!”
“Indeed,” Naomi acknowledged. “Well, we can at least clean your filthy hide. Into the bath with you.” She opened the door and gestured towards Aina and Karin. Naomi’s display of power had managed to overcome Aina’s embarrassment, and the young girl walked into the room without hesitation, followed by the two other meido. She made her way to the far corner of the changing room and began to disrobe, placing her clothes in a basket close to the ground.
“Brace yourself Aina-chan,” Karin called out from across the room. “What you’re about to see isn’t pretty.”
“Wakaranai,” Aina called back.
“Meidou training may be good for your health, but not for your figure. There’s a saying that meido have bodies that only a goshujin could love,” Karin explained.
“I understand the double-meaning of that phrase,” Aina replied. “You really shouldn’t say such things in front of an impressionable child.” Karin’s laughter nearly drowned out Naomi’s sigh. When it died down, Aina asked, “Goshujin-sama doesn’t do that kind of thing to his meido, does he?”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Karin answered. “Goshujin-sama’s quite the gentleman.”
“That said, you may not devote yourself to anyone except the master, so romance is out of the question,” Naomi added.
“Hontou?” asked Aina.
“That’s the long and short of it,” Karin confirmed. “At least on paper.”
“That’s enough,” Naomi cut off the conversation. “You don’t have to worry about romance for a few more years anyway, Mme Aina.”
Having just finished disrobing, Aina wrapped a small towel around herself for modesty, and turned around just in time to see Naomi, completely nude, slide open the door to the bathing area and seat herself in front of the closest faucet.
Naomi’s body was very muscular, a fact normally hidden by her loose-fitting dress. There was very little fat on her body, and her chest was nearly indistinguishable from that of a muscular man’s. But the large scars that covered her body, evidence of bitter losses and tough battles barely won, were by far her most prominent feature. Aina’s tiny surgical scars didn’t even compare. Although she knew society expected her to condemn Naomi as ugly, Aina couldn’t help but admire her poetic beauty.
“That’s your future, jo-chan”, Karin commented. “The sooner you accept it, the easier it will be. Of course, you won’t have to worry about the scars. Naomi-sama got hers before the advent of mahou healing. I’d have a couple bad ones if it weren’t for that.”
“Then why do you have that scar on your face?” Aina asked.
“This thing?” Karin asked, pointing to the large scar on her left cheek. “I like it because it makes me look tough.” Aina couldn’t disagree.
As the two of them walked towards the faucets, the door to the hallway opened, and a group of meido entered the changing area. Aina took a seat next to Naomi, who was busy running conditioner through her hair. Aina began to wash herself, starting with her arms.
“Mme Aina, you’re so scrawny,” Naomi observed, gently grabbing Aina’s wrist and pulling her arm close to inspect it. “No muscle at all. Do you really have a confirmed kill?”
“San confirmed kills,” Aina boasted.
“Is that so? Who else have you killed?”
“Ichi confirmed kill,” Aina amended.
“Good answer,” Naomi smirked, releasing Aina’s arm.
Aina went back to her washing, dreading the moment when she would have to remove the towel to wash the rest of her body. She was rescued from her thoughts when a bucket of water was dumped on her from behind with an enthusiastic “sore!”.
“San-jyuu point minyas,” Momo declared, proudly holding the bucket over her head. “If I were a teki, you’d be shindeiru.”
“Momo,” Mimi whined, “Nyaomi-sama’s right there. Remember what happened the last time she caught us horsing around in the bath?”
“I’m not horsing around,” Momo protested. “I’m helping Ainya-chan get over her embarrassment.”
“It’s not working,” Mimi pointed out. Aina was clutching the now-wet towel to her chest to keep it from falling off.
“Then I’ll just have to go for a totsugeki! Sor—Nya!” Momo cried out in pain.
“No roughhousing in the bath,” Chikako commanded, releasing her grip on Momo’s tail. “Aina-chan, you’re in my spot.”
“I told you,” Mimi hissed.
“Gomen, Chikako-onee-sama,” Aina apologized, “I didn’t know.”
“She’s joking. There’s no assigned seating in the bath,” Naomi pointed out.
“I’m serious. It’s important to maintain the hierarchy in all aspects of life. I know you didn’t grow up in this culture, but you should have at least learned that much by now.”
“That’s why no one else tries to sit next to me,” Naomi realized, a frown beginning to form on her face. “I thought they were frightened of me, but they’re frightened of you.”
“They know their place,” Chikako said matter-of-factly. Aina stood and moved aside so that Chikako could sit at the faucet. Chikako grabbed a bucket and rinsed the stool before sitting down. As she did so, Aina could not help but notice that Chikako’s physique rivaled Naomi’s, but like Karin, she had no scars on her body.
“May I wash your back, Chikako-onee-sama?” Aina offered. She hadn’t forgotten Sena’s career advice. It was why she had given up her seat without protest.
“No thank you, Aina-chan. Why don’t you extend that offer to your new tomodachi?” Chikako gestured towards Momo and Mimi.
“Lucky!” Momo exclaimed.
“Wait a minute,” Naomi bade, “I have something to discuss with the four of you. Chikako, can you run the doujou from 2 to 3 from now on?”
“I’d be honored. May I ask naze?”
“These three need some structured exercise time, and I’ll be busy overseeing it.”
“Surely you can get someone else to do that.”
“Nobody else can keep pace with them, unless you think you could.”
“Aina-chan maybe, but not the nekomimi,” Chikako admitted.
“Then it’s settled. You three, report to the courtyard track tomorrow at 2.”
“Ha!”, the three children replied in unison, smiles on their faces.
“Oh, and Mme Momo,” Naomi said seriously, looking the catgirl in the eyes.
“Be careful what you say about me behind my back, or you may find I’m more terrifying than any ‘bakemono.’”
“Nya!” Momo yelped, jumping back in fright. Naomi returned to her grooming, an amused smile on her face.
“I told you!” Mimi repeated.
“How did she…” Momo trailed off. A visible shiver radiated from her toes to the tips of her cat ears, causing her tail to straighten out in the process. “Kamawan. Let’s go, Ainya-chan.” Momo grabbed Aina’s hand and led her towards some unoccupied faucets on the other side of the room. “Come wash my back before Nyaomi-sama kills me.”
“Oyasumi, Aina-chan,” Sena said in her usual monotone voice.
“Oyasumi, Sena-chan,” Aina called back in a cheerful voice. Sena turned off the light and closed the door, leaving Aina alone with herself for the first time that day. Aina laid back in her bed and closed her eyes, but despite all the new things she had experienced that day, or perhaps because her mind was still processing them, she found that she wasn’t tired.
Her thoughts inevitably turned to her parents. Having been kept so busy throughout the day, she had an excuse to not miss them, but as she thought about how, if she were home right now, her mother would be tucking her into bed, tears began to fill Aina’s eyes. Before she realized it, the tears broke free and ran down her cheeks, creating twin rivers that she could not stop. She buried her face in her pillow to stifle her sobs, but they were quietly audible outside the room.
“Nyaze are you just standing there?” Boomed Momo’s voice a few minutes later from the other side of the door.
“Aina-chan’s crying,” Sena replied.
“Obviously. The entire floor can hear it. So why are you standing outside her door like some kind of aho?”
“I don’t know what I should do.”
“We’ll take care of it. Out of the way. Shoo!” Momo commanded. A moment later, Aina’s door opened and the two catgirls slipped into the room, closing the door silently behind them.
“Go away,” Aina managed between sobs. Although the room was dark, she could see their eyes glowing as they made their way to her bed, purring reassuringly. Ignoring her plea, they crawled under her bedsheets, one on each side, and cuddled up to the crying girl.
Aina was soon soothed to sleep by the rhythmic purring of her new friends.