Diaho lead Aina down the hall. They passed the study, which was still sealed off, and stopped outside the drawing room.
“Hairu,” a man’s voice bade from within the room when Diaho knocked. Aina walked into the room, immediately dropping into a dogeza before its other occupant.
“Moushiwake arimasen, Ginjiro-sama,” Aina apologized. “I failed in my duty to protect Akira-sama, and I am prepared to pay for it with my life. Demo, please spare the rest of the house staff. The failure is mine alone, and they will serve you well.” Of course, Aina had no intention of dying here, but she felt this kind of apology had the best chance of gaining sympathy. If it didn’t work, she believed she could overpower Diaho, force her way through the barrier, and escape from the city, but she would prefer to avoid harming Diaho and to stay at the mansion if possible.
“Raise your head,” the oldest of Akira’s younger brothers ordered. “No one needs die today if you’ll cooperate with me.”
Naze would he need my cooperation? Aina wondered. Couldn’t he just give me orders? “State your terms,” she told him.
“It’s simple,” he said. “You will support my claim to Akira’s title. The support of Naomi’s successor would be a significant deterrent to those who are challenging me for it.”
“Your oji-san and otouto?” Aina asked.
“If I may speak freely, Ginjiro-sama, Akira-sama didn’t think very highly of you.”
“The feeling was mutual.”
Aina smiled before saying, “He wasn’t fond of anyone who might inherit his title, but between the san of you, he did once express that you were the best choice.” Akira had worded it much more disparagingly, but Aina didn’t feel the need to push her luck. “Of course, I must warn you, if I publicly support your claim, the traitor who killed Akira-sama might side with one of your competitors.”
“She remains a risk regardless of whether or not you support me,” Ginjiro pointed out, “and you are not the only support I have. In fact, I have you to thank for the significant guntai support I have received.”
“Oh?” Aina said, genuinely surprised.
“There were many who appealed to me for mercy on your behalf, but none were more adamant than Dai-ichi Mahou Chutai,” he explained. “They originally approached me with the intention of purchasing you for themselves, but such a transaction would not be legal, so in order to secure their support, I had to agree to lend them your time on a regular basis. Have you been keeping up with the news since Akira’s death?”
“Ee,” Aina confirmed.
“I suppose they’ll be putting you to work hunting down mahou shoujo. Can you handle that?”
Aina was torn. She had opposed the government’s course of action precisely because it would lead to the kind of messy fighting that was now taking place within the city, but she could not deny that magical girls could be dangerous if left to their own devices. Ultimately, she knew Koharu felt the same way. She too had counseled the government against their current policy, and she had created the company to provide discipline and control to magical girls.
“If it will help secure your position, I have no complaints,” Aina replied.
“Ii answer,” Ginjiro said with a smile, which quickly faded. “Things are going to move quickly from here on, and I’m going to work you very hard. For starters, you’re going to record a public statement of support for me. Use your own words so that it sounds natural. What you said earlier about Akira not being fond of me would work well. After that, the mahou chutai is waiting to meet with you outside. You’re to work with them for the next few days, except when we go for hatsumode, when you’ll be expected to accompany us for security.”
“If I may suggest, goshujin-sama,” Aina cut in, “Neo Chichibu Shrine would prefer I not visit, but I have every confidence Diaho-sama can assure your safety.”
“Naze? Did you do something to offend them?”
“It’s not anything I did,” Aina covered. “The priests believe my spiritual energy is impure, and become frustrated when they cannot purify me.”
“Sou ka? Demo, as you pointed out, the traitor Chikako may target us. I would prefer to have both of you there. Besides, Diaho won’t be with us a year from now, so we need to come up with a solution before then. We might as well solve it now.”
“Excuse me, goshujin-sama, naze won’t Diaho-sama be with us in a year?”
“I don’t share Akira’s eccentricities, and I have an unmarried daughter,” Ginjiro said, as if he was surprised he needed to explain this. “There is no room for a butler in this household. Demo, I’m not a bakemono. I will sell the entire kazoku together and ensure they won’t be separated.”
“Although shakai may think differently,” Aina said, pausing to choose her words, “it is a Wright family tradition to not view their housestaff as objects of sexual fetishism. Diaho-sama would never behave inappropriately towards your daughter.”
Ginjiro’s face scrunched up in rage, then quickly relaxed before he replied. “This is just between you and I, but it’s not Diaho I distrust. My daughter is about your age, and she’s begun to take an interest in otoko. Additionally, I could use the okane. I’m grateful to Akira for growing the family fortune while he was goshujin, but the costs of keeping a wife and daughter happy exceed our current budget.”
This revelation surprised Aina, but she didn’t let it show. Ginjiro had income from his own investments, and once he inherited Akira’s, he should have more money. If that wasn’t enough, then neither was his prior income. He was probably in debt.
“In fact,” Ginjiro continued, “we may need to sell off more of the house staff. I want you to put together a list of roku of our least-effective meido. I also want you to review the contracts my ojii-sama signed when he bought the prototype gynoid units. I will make inquiries to determine if there are buyers who would pay more than the cost of their mass-produced replacements. You may delegate the contract review to anyone on staff who you feel is capable, but I don’t yet want it known that I’m planning to sell any of the ningen staff.”
“Homo sapiens house staff,” Aina corrected him. “The gynoids are ningen too.”
“I didn’t ask for a lecture. I asked for your obedience.”
This response didn’t perturb Aina. Ginjiro, it appeared, wasn’t used to being talked back to, and that wasn’t unusual for someone of his caste. The prospect of losing more of her friends was more disturbing to Aina. In the last few months, she had lost Tsukasa, Karin, Naomi, Akira, Kazue, and Chikako, Furthermore, the nekomimi, while not about to die, would soon leave the mansion. With the exception of Naomi and Kazue’s deaths, these losses were the result of her actions. If she lost Sena and Jin, she would truly be lonely. Although Aina was on friendly terms with the rest of the staff, she wasn’t very close to any of them.
“Gomen, goshujin-sama,” Aina apologized. “I did not mean to speak out of turn. I will carry out your meirei, but I would be remiss in my duty if I did not caution you to be very careful when exploring the sale of the prototype units. There is more than one zaibatsu attempting to reverse-engineer the electronic brain, and they may believe a prototype unit may be more vulnerable. From what I have learned from Hideaki-sama, they are not, and the buyer may use their inability to gain useful information as an excuse to withhold payment after destroying the gynoid.”
Aina would have to do her best to ensure it never got to that point. In order to cover up the details behind Kazue’s death, Hideaki had sent a mass-produced gynoid back in her place, figuring that no one outside of himself, the gynoids, and Aina would ever know the difference.
“That’s a valid concern,” Ginjiro allowed, “but I am unaccustomed to receiving unsolicited warnings from my meido. I never did understand why Akira allowed himself to be browbeaten by his house staff. Our chichiue never tolerated such disrespect.”
“Akira-sama was proud of us,” Aina said, knowing full well that Ginjiro had not expected her to answer. “As the education minister, he encouraged us to seek knowledge, even if we were not provided a formal education. He knew that, to accomplish his yabou, he needed to make the right decisions, which meant he needed to consider as many reasonable ideas as he could. He didn’t let his ego get in the way when the best idea came from someone else.”
“Soshite, in pursuing his yabou,” Ginjiro said, “he lead an unhappy life, failed to achieve much, and was killed by a servant he couldn’t control. It may have seemed like a logical approach, but in reality, he was just too kind-hearted for his position. I will not make those mistakes. I have no further yabou other than to live a happy life, and I will not allow such insubordination. I will not show you the kind of favoritism that Akira did, but I will be fair. If you cannot adjust to these changes, I will walk away right now, and you can take your chances supporting my otouto or my ojisan, but I believe you will find they are quite cruel.”
“That won’t be necessary, goshujin-sama. Please be patient with me as I learn to behave as you expect.”
“As long as you wakaru. Demo, while you’re still being talkative, Akira wrote in his will that he doesn’t want a funeral. I’m more than happy to oblige, as funerals are expensive, but he also donated large sums to Chichibu shrine on a regular basis. Naze would a man of such piety forgo a funeral?”
“Akira-sama was an atheist,” Aina clarified. “He donated in order to have regular access to Omoikane-sama’s counsel, which often proved advantageous in his political dealings. Omoikane-sama’s power is real, but he, like all the kami, are human-made.”
“Very well. There is one more matter I want you to take care of. You may delegate it as you see fit. Furnish and clean all the family rooms by tonight. We are moving in immediately for extra protection. My wife and I will take the master bedroom, and I intend to allow my daughter her choice of any of the other rooms. Additionally, my wife will require a room for her own occasional use. We will also be bringing a single meido with us, so prepare a room for her. She will be my housekeeper, and you will not challenge her for that position.”
“If that meido is Shiro-sama, I have no objections,” Aina said. Shiro was Momo and Mimi’s mother, and Aina knew that Ginjiro owned her.
“Ii. I’m counting on you to give her your support. You’re dismissed.”
“Ha,” Aina acknowledged, getting to her feet.
“That reminds me,” Ginjiro said, holding up a hand to stop her, “I know Akira and our chichiue preferred to run their house staff like a guntai, but I would prefer you all to be more feminine and polite. See to it that the rest of the staff are trained on how to behave properly.”
“Kashikomarimashita, goshujin-sama,” Aina said with a bow.
“Are you sure I can’t interest you in lunch?” Aina asked. She and Koharu were conversing near the front gate.
“I don’t have time,” Koharu answered. “You’ve kept me waiting too long already.”
“Gomen. Let’s get down to business then.”
Koharu summoned five photographs from thin air and handed them to Aina. “Do you recognize any of these hito?” Each photograph was of a young woman, and Aina recognized two of them. One was the magical girl with the business suit who had cast a barrier around the mansion.
“I’ve seen her before,” Aina said, handing Koharu the photo of Élisabeth, “at a funeral. She’s a Catholic, but I don’t know… Matte, was she the one in the medieval armor?”
“Very astute,” Koharu confirmed. “Any others?”
“Iie,” Aina said, looking over the photos again.
“These san,” Koharu said, picking out the three women Aina didn’t recognize, “are the heads of the largest mahou yakuza groups. They’re powerful, smart, and elusive. The last ichi,” Koharu pointed to the photo of the woman in the business suit, “is a mercenary. Without exaggeration, she is the strongest mahou shoujo in the sekai, but to be blunt, she’s a bit dumb. She’s made some boneheaded life decisions, and she’s massively in debt to ni different yakuza groups. If you meet her, don’t try to fight. Outsmart her and get away.” She took the photograph back from Aina and it vanished into thin air. “If we can take care of these yon, she won’t make any trouble for us.”
“You want me to assassinate them?” Aina inferred.
“Iie, not if you can help it. I don’t want any power vacuums making things more complicated. I want you to convince the yakuza heads to lay low for a few months. There’s going to be a by-election in March, and once Kei-sama becomes an MP, she should be able to wrangle the votes to reverse this baka Mahou Shoujo Control Act. That is, if things don’t get out of hand in the meantime. I don’t know where these onna are, and they wouldn’t trust me if I did. You, on the other hand, are Naomi-sama’s successor, and there are rumors Naomi-sama had connections in all san groups.”
“I don’t like relying on Kei-sama, but I’ll see what I can do. What about our crusader? Naze bring her up? She didn’t seem all that impressive to me.”
“She’s much stronger than she let on, and she’s decided to fight a sensou for seigi against oppression,” Koharu said, rolling her eyes. “It’s just the kind of baka shit that could push more MPs over to the other side. Demo, I don’t think she means us any ill will. If you run across her, try to convince her to lay down her arms, but don’t attack her. I want to nip her little rebellion in the bud, and the best way is to convince her to come over to our side.”
“You really like tying my hands,” Aina observed.
“I’ve invested a lot in you. I’m going to get all I can from it.”
Jan. 4th, U.C. 0052, 10:40 PM
Even if he wasn’t going to throw a funeral for Akira, Ginjiro couldn’t get out of throwing a reception for him. To do otherwise would suggest that he didn’t care for his brother at all, which would weaken his claim to Akira’s title. The event had been a somber one, but it had gone without a hitch, and the final guest had just departed. It had been Shiro’s first time managing an event of this size, but the nekomimi meido, who was named for the single white stripe in her otherwise jet-black hair, handled it admirably. She didn’t even bat an eye when Sena, uninvited, wheeled a piano into the dining hall and began playing during dinner.
To celebrate Shiro’s success, Ginjiro had just invited her to the table where he and his family were sitting for a toast. She politely accepted a glass of wine and made small talk for a few minutes before Ginjiro’s wife announced that she was going to retire for the night, and Shiro escorted her to the master bedroom. Ginjiro’s daughter had been allowed a single glass of wine with dinner, and now that her mother was no longer watching, she figured she could pester her father for another glass or two. As they drank, Aina walked silently up to them and began to remove their plates, taking care not to disturb them.
“Are you Aina?” Ginjiro’s daughter asked, grabbing Aina’s wrist as she reached for a plate. Aina could have easily dodged or pulled back, but doing so would have been disobedient. Aina was concerned nonetheless. It had been a long time since she had touched a normal person, and she was afraid she might accidentally injure the girl.
“Hai, Nanami-sama, I am Aina.”
“I’ve been hoping to meet you all day,” Nanami informed her. “Please, join us for a moment. Have a glass of wine.” She let go of Aina’s wrist and gestured to the chair to the left of her, across from her father. Aina only looked to Ginjiro, who gave a small nod.
“Domo arigatou gozaimasu, Nanami-sama,” Aina said, sitting down. “To what do I owe this honor?”
“No need to be so formal,” Nanami giggled as she placed her left hand on Aina’s thigh under the table. From Ginjiro’s perspective, it looked like Nanami had her hand in her own lap, but Aina knew this was still a dangerous situation. Gently, very gently, she grabbed Nanami’s hand and pulled it off her, but as soon as she let go, Nanami’s hand was back on her leg, this time closer to her inner thigh. “Everyone’s been talking about Akira-oji-san all day, but I only met him once. I hear you were close. Nani was he like?”
I thought Ginjiro-sama said she was into otoko, Aina thought to herself. Looks like he was worried about Diaho-sama for nothing.
“Well, he was very intelligent,” Aina said, as if deep in thought. She once again pulled Nanami’s hand off of her thigh. This time, she held on to it, and Nanami seemed to accept this. “Demo, he could be overbearing and patronizing at times. He always saw himself as a teacher, no matter what situation he was in. He was ambitious, too, and could become quite animated when talking about his keikaku. He fancied himself a tactician, and aspired to be like Yang Wen-li, but of course, he wasn’t fighting for democracy.” At that last remark, Ginjiro cleared his throat, and Aina rushed to clarify. “He was fighting for himself.” Ginjiro seemed satisfied, and before he could change his mind, Aina raised the wine glass that Nanami had poured for her. “Arigatou for the drink. Kanpai.”
“Kanpai,” Ginjiro replied automatically, taking a sip himself before speaking again. “Aina, I have another assignment for you. Nanami’s school term starts in a few days, and I want you to escort her, for her safety.” At this point, Nanami pulled her hand away, and Aina let her go. “Now that I’m a goshujin, and she’s my heir, there may be those who would kidnap or harm her. It’s not unheard of for VIP students to have their own meido guards, even in the most secure private schools. I’ve been reading Akira’s diary, and learned that he planned to send you to school, but don’t mistake that for this. Your primary nimnu will be to mamoru her, but if you manage to learn a thing or two, I won’t hold it against you.”
“Domo arigatou gozaimasu, Ginjiro-sama,” Aina thanked him. “You’re more kind-hearted than you let on.”
“I’m sure you’ll find we can be very good to you,” Nanami said, placing her hand back on Aina’s thigh and giving it a squeeze before pulling back again, “as long as you’re good to us.”
“It’s the wine, I’m sure,” Ginjiro insisted. “I can already tell I’m going to regret this decision tomorrow. Come on, Nanami, that’s enough for tonight. Time for bed.”
“Hai, chichiue,” Nanami obeyed, standing from her seat. As the two of them walked from the dining hall, Sena began to play a rendition of Valkyries Love Thy Bravery, the theme of the Galactic Empire from Legend of the Galactic Heroes, on the piano. It was an impressive arrangement, created on the spot, and Aina would have been impressed, were it not clearly intended to be a pointed criticism of their new masters. Ginjiro and Nanami, however, did not seem to recognize it and paid it no mind as they walked past Sena, with Aina close behind.
“Oh hail, Liberty Bell!” Sena sung out, just as Aina reached her. Ginjiro and Nanami turned to look back at her.
“True freedom for all men,” Aina blurted, doing her best impersonation of Sena’s singing voice. “Gomen nasai, goshujin-sama. I think the wine got to me too. I’ll stay here and clean up. Oyasumi nasai.” Without another word, Ginjiro turned back around and left. Nanami winked at Aina before following her father.
“Don’t worry about the dishes,” Sena said as she began to play Flag of Freedom, Nation of Freedom, Revolution of the Heart.
“I’m not worried about the dishes,” Aina said, exasperated. “Nani if they had caught you?”
“They’re not clever enough,” Sena countered, and before Aina could object, she began to sing along with the song she was playing.
“True freedom for all ningen,” Aina corrected.
“There has never been true freedom, even just for the men,” Sena observed as she continued playing. “Freedom for all ningen is worse than a fantasy.” She was trying to keep the conversation going through the second verse. In Sena’s estimation, Aina was developing bad drinking habits, and Sena didn’t want the song’s mention of wine to remind Aina that there was an open bottle left unguarded on the table.
“It’s aspirational,” Aina explained, placing her hands on Sena’s shoulders.
“Hai, hai. Just don’t become as patronizing as Akira-sama was.”
“I’ll tone it down if you promise to help me keep Nanami-sama in line.”
“Deal,” Sena agreed immediately. With nothing more to say, the two of them waited in silence for the third verse to start. When it did, they sang together.