She looks like Mari-san, Aina thought, her heart sinking into her stomach. Just my luck.
“Kochira wa Ruri,” Ran introduced her cousin.
“Sugoi! A real meido!” Ruri exclaimed, grabbing Aina’s hand and shaking it. “She even has a gynoid in tow. You weren’t kidding coz, this is the real deal.”
She’s annoying like Mari-san too.
“Oh, how rude of me. Here I am blabbing about you, and I don’t even know your namae.”
“No namae,” Aina informed her. “Safer that way.”
“Oh,” Ruri said. “Oh! Gotcha. Hey, is that one of those dusters with blades hidden behind the feathers?”
“It is,” Aina said warily.
“Sugoi! Can I see it?”
“I hate to be a buzzkill, but it’s not an omocha. You could hurt someone with this.”
“Wakatta,” Ruri said. “I won’t touch it, but I’ve seen pictures, and I want to see one in real life.”
“Maa, maa” Ran urged them, “Let’s have some dinner first. I’m starving. We grabbed some food from the konbini. It will just take a few minutes to heat up.”
“No need,” Sena informed her. “We have prepared dinner.”
“You mean a home cooked meal?” Ran asked, salivating at the thought.
“From ni meido no less,” Ruri interjected.
“Quite,” Sena confirmed. “Kochira e douzo.” She motioned for them to enter the living area, where a kotatsu was adorned with plates of food. “You’re blushing,” Sena whispered to Aina as they trailed behind the cousins.
“Am not,” Aina whispered back. “I was just surprised. Doesn’t she look like Mari-san?”
“I do not see a resemblance, other than that they both have long blonde hair.”
“Meido-san, hayaku,” Ruri interrupted, gesturing to the spot next to her.
Yabai, Aina thought. Am I seeing Mari-san in a girl who doesn’t resemble her? Am I going to see her in every pretty girl with blonde hair? Do I feel that guilty?
Aina sat down next to Ruri, with Sena on the other side, next to Ran.
“Itadakimasu,” they all intoned before digging in.
“Umai!” Ran complimented. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a home-cooked meal. Iie, this is better than home-cooked. How did you learn to cook like this at such a young age?”
“Actually, she did most of it,” Aina gestured to Sena.
“Uso! You mean a gynoid cooked this?” Ran exclaimed.
“I knew gynoids helped out in the kitchens of great houses, but I thought ningen meido did most of the cooking,” Ruri added.
“Pretty much,” Aina confirmed. “You’re well-informed.”
“I’m kind of a meido otaku,” Ruri bragged. “I lurk on /mei/ almost every day, but this is the first chance I’ve gotten to meet a meido in person. That’s why I want to check out all your buki. I’ll be cho careful, I promise.”
“Alright,” Aina relented. “I’ll show you after dinner. But in exchange, you can’t mention a word of this to anyone. No pictures, and no posts on /mei/, even anonymous ones. I’ll be checking.”
“Sonna…” Ruri whined. “OK, deal. Ne, ne, if you know my coz, you must be a fellow member of the tribe, ne? Oh, kuso, should I not have said that in front of the gynoid?”
“It’s daijoubu, she knows,” Aina said. “Demo, it was a dangerous question to blurt out like that.”
“Naze?” asked Ran.
“A meido is supposed to be completely devoted to their goshujin,” Sena explained. “Some… less enlightened goshujin men do not believe that lesbian meido are qualified to work for them.” Akira was one of these “less enlightened” goshujin, but Sena saw no reason to give Ran any leverage over Aina.
“That’s rough,” Ran commiserated. “I hear there are a lot of jobs where you’ll get looked down on for being a member of the tribe. I’m lucky the physics world isn’t like that, though I still do get a fair amount of shit for being a woman.”
“Boring,” Ruri yawned. “Ne, meido-san, are you seeing anyone? If not, want to go out some time? I’ve always wanted to date a meido.”
“You mean you’ve always wanted to date the uniform,” Aina corrected, taking a sip of beer. The bitter taste didn’t agree with her, but she forced it down anyway. “Any meido would do, right?”
“It sounds so bad when you put it that way, but I guess that’s right. Still, doko else am I going to meet a meido who shares my preference? You might be my fated one.”
“Doubt it,” Aina commented, forcing down another sip of beer. It didn’t taste any better than it had a few moments prior, and Aina couldn’t help but make a face.
“Naze are you drinking that?” Ruri asked. “You obviously kirai it.”
“Have to,” Aina explained. “I’m going home in the morning, and I can’t face him sober.”
“So what, you’re going to drink all night?” Ruri scoffed.
“That’s the keikaku,” Aina confirmed. “Realistically though, I’ll probably drink some, fall asleep, drink some more, and then stumble home.”
“Not at the pace you are going,” Sena said, eyeing Aina’s mostly-full glass.
“I’ll drink it,” Aina said. “I just don’t like the taste. I’ll get over it.”
“If the taste is the mondai, I will go purchase some cocktail ingredients,” Sena announced.
“You don’t have to,” insisted Aina.
“I do not mind. It will make the night go easier.” Sena stood up and walked towards the door. A moment later, Aina excused herself and followed.
“Please don’t take too long,” Aina whispered to Sena, catching her as she was putting on her shoes. “That Ruri-san is annoying, and I could use the backup if she tries to get closer to me.”
“I will not take long, and when I return, I will make sure she leaves room for the Holy Spirit.”
“Don’t joke about that,” Aina gasped before she could catch herself. If she had made that blunder to anyone else, Aina would have panicked, but with Sena, she felt only curiosity. Did Sena know about Mari? Did she even know Mari was Catholic in the first place?
“Is that a meirei?” Sena asked.
“Of course not.”
“Jya, I will think about it. You, on the other hand, should be more careful.”
Before Aina could ask Sena to elaborate, the gynoid exited through the front door, into the night.
November 7th, U.C. 0051, 7:12 AM
Aina stumbled up the path towards the mansion. Sena had gone ahead of her to make sure her return would be welcomed. Normally, she would have approached the servants’ entrance, but she intended to go to the front gate and enter as a guest would. As she approached the gate, however, it slid open to permit a car to exit. Aina stepped off the path to allow the car to pass, curtsying as she recognized its occupants.
The prime minister sat in the rear passenger seat, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He took no notice of Aina. Otome, his housekeeper, kept both hands on the wheel as she steered the car around the bend. When last they met, a spark of passion was beginning to kindle in Otome’s eyes, but at the moment she turned to look at Aina, that passion was evident across her entire face. The stark contrast surprised Aina, but through her hangover, she couldn’t decipher Otome’s expression. At first she thought it was anger, but it also looked like pity. Perhaps it was both. Whatever it was, it faded a moment later. As Otome turned her eyes back to the road, her shoulders slumped and her face returned to its normal depression.
“Aina-san,” Chikako called out. Aina turned her head to see Chikako standing at the front gate, arm out, palm down, curling her fingers to beckon Aina.
“Chikako-sama,” Aina cried, flinging her arms wide and running towards Chikako. Before she could be caught in Aina’s embrace, Chikako took a step backward, causing Aina to pause. “Ah, gomen,” Aina rushed to apologize. “I forgot you were uncomfortable… You know I don’t have those kinds of feelings for you.”
“Shitteiru,” Chikako said cooly, not moving from the spot to which she had retreated.
“Jya, you still…”
“Aina-san, there’s no delicate way to say this. You look like kuso, and you smell… Have you been drinking?”
“For ni days straight. Wouldn’t you have done the same thing in my position?”
“I can’t say that I would, though I understand the motivation. Demo, you can’t face goshujin-sama like that. Come in and get tidied up. I’ll see if I can find you some breath mints.”
“Iie, I need—”
“Come on, don’t keep me waiting,” Akira called from the door of the mansion. “Today’s going to be very busy.”
“Like he said, there’s no time. I’ll be fine,” Aina insisted.
“It’s your—” Chikako stopped herself. “Go on.”
“Moushiwake arimasen, goshujin-sama!” Aina recited, her forehead touching the floor of Akira’s study.
“Tatte” Akira commanded. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Aina unsteadily rose to her feet. He noted her matted hair, the stain on the front of her dress, and the stench emanating from her mouth. “You’re drunk.”
“Hai,” Aina replied quietly.
“I ordered you not to go drinking again,” he snarled.
“Hai, I made a mistake.”
“A mistake? The first time was a mistake. I can accept that. But that was mere months ago, someone as smart as you shouldn’t make the same… mistake… twice.”
“Gomen. I’m only ningen.”
“Sou ka?” Akira drew out the words.
She had done exactly what she had accused him of doing: she had made the same mistake twice within a short amount of time, and, he suspected, she had done it in order to restore the relationship between them. She was giving him a chance to save face. By bringing herself back down below him, she no longer had a moral high ground to look down on him from. Compared to what he had done to Karin and Tsukasa, Aina’s sins were trivial, but the power differential between them amplified her misdeeds. In other words, he was allowed to get away with more than she was.
In fact, the power differential was so great that he could have her executed for disobeying orders, while she couldn’t do anything except make him feel guilty. But if he executed her, he would only be lowering himself again. She would not be around to call him on it, but he would carry the guilt with him for the rest of his life. A harder man might not care, and Akira knew his position demanded hardness, but he also saw no reason to dispose of Aina. She could still be useful to him, and she was showing her willingness to be so. She was also the closest thing he had to a daughter. Such thoughts were soft, but even so, he couldn’t deny he had them.
“Arigatou,” Akira finally allowed. Aina bowed in response. “Demo, I find that my feelings towards you are still a bit raw. Normally, I would send you away again, for a time, but we have a situation, and it’s best if you remain at the mansion. Can you do your best to keep out of my sight as much as possible?”
“As you wish, goshujin-sama.”
“I suppose that will have to do. Suwatte. I have some news that may be difficult for you to hear.” Aina obeyed, plopping down into a nearby armchair. “I have been informed that you know a young meido by the name of Mari-san.”
“If this is about those rumors,” Aina groaned, “there’s no truth to them. Hontou.”
“What rumors?” Akira asked with idle curiosity.
“Doesn’t matter. They’re false, and I don’t want to repeat them. I know her.”
“She was found murdered outside the GINZUISHOU.”
“I won’t pretend I’m sorry to see her go. She was quite the bully.”
“So I hear. And because of that, you were the prime suspect in her murder.”
“That’s ridiculous. Sure, I hated her, but she was employed by the prime minister. I wouldn’t kill her without a meiri from you. Matte, you said ‘were.’ As in, past tense?”
“Hai. Chikako uncovered evidence that this was a plot by the defense minister to drive a wedge between the prime minister and I. Whatever those rumors were, it sounds like the defense minister caught wind of them and tried to use them to frame you. You can thank Chikako for clearing your name.”
“Arigatou, Chikako-sama,” Aina said, turning her head to look at Chikako, who stood a few feet away. Chikako remained silent.
“In the mirai, you should be more circumspect about who you associate with. I understand you recently made the acquaintance of the prime minister’s housekeeper, Otome-san. It would be terrible if the same thing happened to her.”
“Believe me, I didn’t want—Never mind. Wakatta, goshujin-sama. I will obey. Gomen for causing you so much trouble. I won’t make the same mistake a third time.”
The implications of her words were clear to all present.
“Ah,” Akira turned away from her and inhaled deeply. “You were right—are right. Service uniforms shall not be allowed within this mansion any longer.”
“Arigatou gozaimasu, goshujin-sama.”
“My otousan had banned them, you know. My ojiisan was quite promiscuous, and as a young man, my father saw the harm it did to our family. When he succeeded my grandfather, he declared that the Wright family should not have sexual relations with its staff. That proclamation caused its own mondai in the short-term, but overall, it was for the best. I was foolish to overturn it.”
A silence pervaded the room. Neither Aina nor Chikako could think of anything to say in response.
“That’s the last I’ll speak of it. Get out of here,” Akira ordered. Aina heaved herself up from the chair. “Matte, I almost forgot.” Akira reached into his jacket and produced an envelope, which he held out to Aina. “You’ve been invited to Mari-san’s funeral.”