Chikako and Aina walked in silence to the nearest clinic, and from there, back towards the mansion. Aina eventually broke the silence when they were nearly home. “Those nurse uniforms were really skimpy.”
“You would notice that,” Chikako shot back.
“Iie, I mean, they didn’t seem practical. They were almost like service uniforms.”
“I didn’t see you complaining when you were flirting with that pink-haired nurse.”
“I wasn’t flirting, and I didn’t want to say anything because it’s not my place to police her clothing. Besides, that uniform showed off her legs nicely… Gomen.”
“For sounding like—”
“Like a dirty old man,” Chikako interrupted.
“Like Karin-sama,” Aina insisted.
“Are we really going to do this now?”
“I’m going first then. Did you mean what you wrote in that letter, or were you just trying to manipulate me?”
“If I’m being honest, both,” Aina answered sheepishly. “I mainly wanted to come home, but I did mean all that stuff. I’m grateful that you pretended to be my parents, and I do want to repair our friendship. Demo, you tried to push me off on to Erika-sama soon after I returned, and that made the gap between us seem even more insurmountable.”
“You were honest with me, so I’ll be honest with you. After you returned, I wasn’t completely sure whether you were collaborating with Naomi-sama. Erika-sama was a test. By refusing her offer, you confirmed my suspicions.”
“That’s how you figured it out?” Aina scoffed. “There are plenty of reasons I wouldn’t want to leave. I have tomodachi here, and as complicated as things are between us right now, Akira-sama is still almost like kazoku to me. There’s no guarantee Erika-sama would be as good to me, and most importantly, I don’t buy into the idea that a meido—”
“—should be expected to have feelings for their goshujin,” Chikako finished for her. “You can spare me your standard lecture. I know your opinions on that.”
“If I went to Erika-sama’s, I’d be implicitly buying into that. It would also be awkward to be sent to the same house as Momo, for the same reason, since I was the one who got her sent there in the first place.”
“Those are all good excuses, but I saw how tempted you were. You wanted to go, but you knew that Naomi-sama wouldn’t let you.”
“That thought hadn’t occurred to me,” Aina lied, “and I still haven’t given Erika-sama a definitive answer. I could still go.”
“Of course you didn’t give her a definitive answer. It would be rude to directly refuse a goshujin. She understands that, and she’s not expecting anything further from you.”
“I didn’t realize that.”
“Of course, I don’t think she’d refuse you at any time. You’ll probably get more objections from her housekeeper, who is likely to perceive you as a threat to her position.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“I’m always mindful of potential threats, but I’m not too worried about you. Even if I wasn’t stronger than you, it’ll be a few more years before you’re mature enough to take on that much responsibility, and if all goes according to keikaku, I’ll have married into a good family by then.”
“You know, I’ve heard you explain that plan before, but naze are you so obsessed with marrying into a good family? Nani does it get you that you don’t already have, besides an American husband?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Because it’s better than being a meido.”
“Demo, you’re not just any meido, you’re the head meido of the largest meido staff in the machi; individually, there are few who can claim to be stronger than you; and as far as goshujin go, Akira-sama treats us better than any other… most of the time.”
“You mean when he’s not raping my tomodachi or ordering me to kill her.”
“Un,” Aina replied unenthusiastically.
“For the record, you said that, not me. Demo, as long as we’re on the topics of things I didn’t say, Akira-sama is not the great man you think he is. You only see him as good because he coddles you while I’m left to do the dirty work. While you’ve been carrying out his more altruistic orders, I’ve been, for example, murdering French kodomo because their parents went to a school board meeting and demanded a better education for French students. That shit that went down at Noa-san and Kumi-san’s place, that’s what ninmu are like for me, and that’s why I can feel secure knowing that Akira-sama will never, ever allow you to become head meido.”
“That’s hidoi! gasped Aina.
“That’s what it means to be a meido,” Chikako shot back, “to have only ichi sentaku in jinsei: to become an immoral satsujin-sha, or to shine. Iie, it’s worse than that. You have to keep yourself strong at all times. You never know when some upstart is going to get the better of you, either on the battlefield or challenging you for your position; you have to put yourself in dangerous situations where even an unskilled opponent might get in a lucky shot and end your life; and unless you luck into superior genes like Naomi-sama, it gets harder as you age. It’s not a matter of if you’ll die horribly in the midst of a reprehensible tatakai, it’s a matter of when. So yeah, I’ll take any chance to get out, even if it means marrying some blue-blooded, chauvinistic, pencil-dicked American toad. I’ll even have his kids.”
“That’s… I don’t even know where to start. Gomen, I had no idea. Iie, I knew I was benefitting from favoritism, but I thought I was just getting out of the boring jobs. If I had known… Naze didn’t you tell me? Iie, gomen. I didn’t mean to blame you.”
“Forget it, it’s not like I’m some blameless victim. I did some unthinkable things to attain my position.”
“Demo, now that I know, I want to be assigned to those kinds of ninmu in the mirai.”
“Naze would you want that?”
“Now that I know you and my other nakama are suffering, it’s only right that I suffer alongside you.”
“You don’t wakaru. There’s nothing right about what we do for Akira-sama.”
“Demo, there’s nothing right about allowing my tomodachi to suffer alone.”
“Sou yo. There’s no right choice here, so you should choose to do the least harm.”
“Stop. I know you don’t mean to, but you’re being insulting. Lots of us would give anything to have your privileges, and you’re trying to throw them away.”
Aina didn’t feel like apologizing for that, so the two of them walked for a few blocks before Aina picked up a previous thread of the conversation. “There has to be a better way out.”
“The only way out is through marriage? Isn’t that sexist?”
“Betsuni. It’s the same for butlers.”
“It’s still depressing.”
“Can’t argue with that, but it’s the only socially-acceptable—Iie, there is one other way, but it’s risky, and it would never happen anyway. Akira-sama would have to be stripped of his goshujin title, and the remaining goshujin would have to spare us.”
Again they fell into silence, and this time it lasted until they had nearly reached the mansion.
“It doesn’t feel like we’ve reconciled at all,” observed Aina.
“It doesn’t,” Chikako agreed.
“Is there anything I can do to get on your good side?”
“Hmmm,” Chikako said noncommittally.
“If it’s worth anything, I didn’t kill Karin-sama.”
“I know you didn’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’d still be here if it weren’t for you.”
“Jya, there’s nothing we can do?”
“Perhaps we should just give it some more jikan.”
“If there’s no chance of us patching things up, it can’t hurt to ask: Doko’s Fumiko-chan?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“I have a duty to protect Akira-sama’s interests. If you reunited with Fumiko-san, her father would be angry at Akira-sama for allowing it to happen.”
“Despite that, you offered to tell me earlier.”
“Duty or no, I needed to know if Naomi-sama planned to kill me, and if we couldn’t get information, Yoko-sama might have turned on me.”
“So as long as your life is in danger…”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
Aina knew she had to quickly decide what to do. She always had her full spiritual energy at her disposal, but Chikako would need time to build hers up, and once she did, there was still a possibility that she was stronger than Aina. If Aina was really going to attack Chikako, she had to do it quickly.
Unsheathing her duster, Aina rushed directly towards Chikako. If past experience held, she should be able to use her superior speed to land the first blow. The trick was to make it painful, but not lethal, so that Chikako could still answer the question.
Grabbing what looked like a Bowie knife holstered behind her shoulder, Chikako sliced cleanly through Aina’s duster, barely missing Aina’s fingers. Aina was so surprised that she almost didn’t notice that the blade was vibrating so fast that it appeared slightly blurry. Instinctively, Aina tried to push Chikako backwards with her spiritual energy, but Chikako thrust the prog knife towards Aina, and it easily ripped through her spiritual energy. Leaping backwards, Aina barely managed to escape getting stabbed, and threw coasters at Chikako to slow her advance.
Because Chikako had not used the prog knife against Naomi, Aina was able to infer that it was only useful in specific situations. How long had Chikako been carrying that knife? Aina had first noticed it strapped to Chikako’s shoulder years ago, but she couldn’t remember if Chikako had it the first time they met. It was possible that she had acquired the knife specifically to defend herself from Aina, after she got a better understanding of Aina’s powers.
Chikako danced around the incoming coasters, closing the distance between her and Aina. Placing both hands on its handle, she thrust the knife at Aina, but in doing so, swung it to the side slightly to give it an arc. The inefficiency of this movement was not something Aina would have noticed mere hours ago, but now she could clearly see it, and it allowed her just enough time to retreat past Chikako’s reach.
Jumping backwards once more, Aina pretended to trip and fall. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Chikako dove forward, stabbing the prog knife downward, but at the last possible moment, Aina rolled out of the way, and Chikako ended up stabbing the ground. The dirt offered no resistance to the blade of the knife, but the blade’s vibrations pulled dirt and sand into the handle, creating friction between the knife’s tang and the inner walls of the handle, ultimately slowing the vibrations of the knife.
With the prog knife no longer able to cut through Aina’s spiritual energy, Chikako abandoned it and jumped to her feet, just in time to avoid a kick Aina had aimed at her side. Aina tried to follow up with another attack, but this time, she was pushed back by Chikako’s spiritual energy.
“Hokuto Shinken Ougi” Chikako called out. “Shichisei Tenshin!” Channeling her spiritual energy, she began to move very quickly to circle around Aina.
Shimatta! Aina swore inwardly. I wasn’t fast enough. Demo, if she’s wasting time calling out the names of her attacks, I may still have a chance. Although familiar with Hokuto Shinken generally, Aina couldn’t identify the individual techniques. She knew there was a flying kick, but vaguely remembered most of the attacks being ground-based. Taking a chance, Aina jumped high into the air, hoping it would avoid Chikako’s attack, realizing only moments too late that Hokuto Shinken didn’t actually exist. It was one of those occasional, unexplained exceptions, where a major part of anime simply did not exist within the influence of the GINZUISHOU. Chikako had called out the name of her attack not to execute it, but to cause Aina to panic.
A clothesline wrapped around Aina’s legs, and Chikako yanked on the other end hard, pulling Aina down towards her. Aina extended her legs, hoping to use Chikako’s force to execute a flying kick, as Mari had done against Otome, but she landed short, just in front of Chikako, who used the rope to pull Aina’s feet out from under her.
“Naomi-sama orchestrated Karin-sama’s death,” Aina blurted out, hoping to distract Chikako.
“Uso,” Chikako replied coldly, kicking Aina in the side. The force of the kick sent Aina flying, and Chikako pulled her back in.
“Hontou! She ordered Karin-sama to take me to that bar. She probably knew that Karin-sama was blackmailing goshujin-sama, and this would push him to do something.”
Chikako picked Aina up off the ground and held her by her collar. “Naomi-sama didn’t even know you were a carpet muncher until a few hours prior, and she’s a careful planner. She wouldn’t have done that on a whim.”
“Karin-sama’s death was tabun part of her long-term plans, and she’s good at recognizing opportunities.”
“Let me get this straight. You knew Naomi-sama had planned Karin-san’s death, and you went along with it?”
“Iie! I didn’t know why Naomi-sama ordered Karin-sama to take me to the bar, only that she had. Soshite, I didn’t want to go, but Karin-sama gave me no choice.”
“Jya, knowing that Naomi-sama’s plans had led to that tragedy, you later agreed to help Naomi-sama carry them out.”
“I didn’t realize it at the time,” Aina replied pathetically. “I only just now made the connection between Naomi-sama’s meirei and Karin-sama’s death.”
“I’m supposed to believe that? You? You’re smart. There’s no way you didn’t know. I was right about you. You’re not a ningen, you’re a bakemono.”
Without warning, Chikako slammed her palm into Aina’s face, breaking her nose, and then kneed her in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She reached behind her for her sword, but felt a firm hand grab her wrist.
“Phone call for you,” Naomi said with a smile. “Shall I put it on speaker?”
“Omae,” Chikako growled.
Naomi pressed a button on the phone she was holding, and Akira’s voice boomed from the small speakers. “Nani are you doing?!” Chikako looked up towards the closest mansion watchtower and could just barely make out Akira’s figure.
“She started it,” Chikako said simply.
“Both of you, stop it,” Akira ordered. “Naomi said you ni still haven’t patched things up, despite my meirei. If you can’t work it out peacefully, save it for after the sensou. I need you both in top condition right now.”
“As head meido, I will have to punish her,” Chikako informed Akira, “in order to maintain discipline.”
“Wakatta,” Akira reluctantly agreed.
“Ichi week solitary confinement,” Chikako rendered her sentence.
“Iie,” Akira countermanded her. “I need her on duty.”
“She can bust herself out if there’s an emergency,” Chikako said, exasperated.
“Iie,” Akira repeated.
“Even favoritism has limits, goshujin-sama,” Chikako snapped. “You’re making my job harder and you’re undermining my authority over the other meido.”
“Know your place,” Akira warned.
“Gomen, goshujin-sama,” Chikako mumbled. She turned back to Aina. “You’re garnished ichi week’s wages, and you aren’t to set foot in goshujin-sama’s toshokan for ni weeks.”
“Now you’re undermining my authority,” Akira observed. “It’s not up to you to decide who can use my toshokan. Demo, I’ll let it slide this time. That is an acceptable punishment.”
“I’m glad we could come to an agreement,” Chikako said sarcastically. As if to get in one last shot, she threw Aina to the ground, hard, and stormed off towards the mansion.
“Come on, Mme Aina,” Naomi said, helping Aina to her feet, “let’s get you to the infirmary.” Aina was covering her face with one hand. At first, Naomi thought she was pinching her nose to stop the bleeding, but upon closer inspection, she realized that the hand was meant to hide something else.
Aina was smiling.