Kaika and Saya gracefully walked across the room, the sound of their high heels muffled by the thick red carpet. Zhang and an unfamiliar young woman were already waiting for them at a round dining table. The spacious private function room of the upscale Chinese restaurant looked deserted with only four guests.
Zhang stood up from his chair and sent the two ladies a jovial smile. The woman beside him also got up, but her lips curled into an arrogant smirk instead.
“Good evening. I am Zhang Wei Long, leader of the Soaring Serpent Society.” He motioned towards his companion. “This is my associate, Mao.”
Despite finding Mao’s expression and mononym a little odd, Kaika returned the courtesy with immaculate manner.
“Charmed. I am Kaika Nikaidou, and this is my assistant Saya Saionji.”
Saya executed a perfect bow. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“I heard from Colonel Liu about Ms. Saionji, but I didn’t expect both of you to be so young!” Zhang laughed cheerfully. “And so beautiful!”
Kaika expertly faked delight, faintly blushing at will. “I am humbled by your praise.”
She flaunted a sleeveless qipao. Its flaring knee-length skirt gave off a youthful and lively feel, perfect for a girl her size. Gold embroidering shone against its glossy black fabric.
With a gentle yet confident smile, Saya gazed directly into Zhang’s eyes. “You are too kind.”
Compared to the rather modern design of Kaika’s chinese dress, Saya’s crimson qipao was more traditional. The one-piece tightly enveloped her figure, showing off her delicate curves. The long skirt reached just above her ankles. A side slit, which ran up to her pelvis, granted glimpses of her bare legs with each step she took.
As the two parties seated themselves around the table, Mao sneered at Zhang. “Sexually harassing people you’ve just met, as expected of a dirty old man.”
“Can’t I even compliment people in peace?”
“Not when you’re leering at girls young enough to be your granddaughters.”
Kaika smiled, faint dimples showing on her cheeks. “No lady would feel unhappy after being complimented by a man as fetching as yourself, Mr. Zhang.”
“See that Mao? Unlike you, she understands my charm.” He touched his chin and made a smug face.
“She’s just being polite. And stop bragging about a face designed by your surgeon.”
“It’s a perfect copy of my younger self, you know!? And please don’t blurt out things that’ll ruin my reputation!”
“Beauty is beauty,” said Kaika. “It is meaningless to distinguish between fake and genuine in aesthetics. The ability to acquire beauty is no less impressive than the luck of being born with it.”
“That you didn’t even get.” Mao shrugged. “Faking understanding with one-liners will come back to bite you later.” She shook her head, eyes closed. “This is the problem with posers.”
“First my age, then my looks, and now my brains. You really leave no stone unturned.”
“You won’t get anything even if you praise me. Except insults. Those are free of charge, especially for you.”
“I think I’ll pass on that kind of special treatment.”
Kaika glanced at Mao.
From the start, Kaika knew Zhang’s antics were all a ruse to make her lower her guard. It was unheard of for a Chinese triad boss, who should highly value dignity, to behave in such a manner. By acting like a clown, he was likely checking the reactions of his enemies and probing their psyche.
What piqued Kaika’s curiosity was the sharp-tongued yet strangely captivating woman he trusted enough to use for his ploy.
Her Chinese has a familiar accent.
Kaika analyzed Mao’s appearance. Her expression made it seem as if she had the entire world beneath her feet. In stark contrast to her full and perky bust, Mao had a very slender physique. Regardless, Kaika understood that body shape revealed next to nothing in a world with ARMS.
Not enough info.
Let’s poke around a little.
Kaika met Mao’s eyes. “Are you two a couple?”
Mao did not answer, but Kaika caught a flash of uncertainty on her face.
“Not at all!” said Zhang. “I’m not the type to be bound to one woman.”
With a sharp sneer, Mao cast a pitying gaze on her boss. “That’s because you’re destined to be bound to no women.”
“Guh. I don’t even get a chance in the future?”
He covered for her.
So she’s just a mascot at the negotiation table.
But that also confirms her martial ability.
If Mao was not there to directly participate in the negotiation, she had to be a bodyguard. Bringing only one guard into the room meant Mao was extremely capable.
But so was Saya.
To communicate the danger, Kaika glanced at her butler and then darted her sight to Mao for an instant. Saya nodded ever so slightly in response.
Servers brought in several trays of food. With practiced hands, they quickly laid out various Chinese dishes on the lazy susan. Baijiu, in small cups, were served to each person on the table.
“Gan bei!” said Zhang while raising his cup.
Kaika took a whiff of the transparent liquor in her hand. A bout of nausea assailed her, but she kept it from showing. She had not fully recovered from her hangover, so alcohol was the last thing she wanted, but turning down the toast would make Zhang lose face. For the sake of smooth negotiations, she forced the baijiu down her throat.
The meal proceeded peacefully, with both parties sizing each other up under the guise of small talk. Kaika patiently waited for Zhang to open up formal negotiations. However, the dessert course, a selection of fresh fruits, came without him even touching on the topic.
“If I’d known you ladies were such great company, I would’ve accepted your invitation much earlier!” said Zhang.
“Our dealings with Colonel Liu were a stroke of luck,” said Saya. “This meeting would not have happened if not for that coincidence.”
“No need to be humble. Approaching him to get to me was an excellent move. I didn’t agree to this meeting because the colonel asked me. I simply found the one who successfully used him quite interesting.” Zhang pulled out his chair. “Well then, I will take my leave.”
What did he just say?
Kaika covered her mouth and giggled. “You are such a joker, Mr. Zhang.”
He donned a plastic grin. “I’m completely serious.”
“Please wait. We have not discussed the main topic yet.”
“Main topic? I only agreed to have a meal together. We have nothing to discuss.”
Did I screw up somewhere!?
Zhang looked into her eyes, as if reading her mind. “No, you were excellent. Too excellent. That’s why I decided not to broach any serious topics. Who knows where that devilish tongue of yours would lead me? If you were a bit less competent, we might’ve been able to at least discuss your offer. Not like that would’ve changed anything.”
Eloquence meant nothing without a chance to speak. Kaika realized she had made an incorrect assumption, a critical error, regarding this negotiation. Zhang’s words made her aware of a single fact.
It was never a negotiation in the first place.
Zhang’s gaze sharpened. “The triads will not allow NGC to conduct illegal business in Guangxi. That is set in stone.”
He stood up. Mao followed suit.
I’ve gotta do something!
“Please, Mr. Zhang. I am certain we can come to an agreement if you just hear me out. The financial backing of NGC is a great asset for a man in your position.”
Zhang turned to his bodyguard. “See, Mao, this is the problem with prodigies. Unlike us normal folks, they have the talent to achieve things with very little time and effort. They rarely stumble on the road to each success.” He faced Kaika. “That’s why you can easily ask me to relinquish my hard-earned authority. Your excellence has spoiled and blinded you.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“You haven’t sacrificed much to get to where you are, have you?”
Images of Kureha and Rin filled Kaika’s head.
Wrath gushed forth from her core, threatening to burst out of her every pore.
How dare you…
How dare you!!!
Her face did not move. Her breathing remained calm. She dammed up her flooding emotions with willpower and plugged the leaks with impeccable acting.
Zhang narrowed his thin eyes for an instant but quickly brought out a smile. “Otherwise, you would’ve understood that there’s no room for negotiation without us needing to exchange a single word.”
The gears inside Kaika shifted. She began moving on a completely different track.
“Please reconsider!” Kaika placed her palms on the table and stood up. “I have no intention of infringing on your authority. At least allow us the chance to meet with you again. I promise to come up with conditions that will satisfy you.”
He shook his head. “Money can’t buy unity.”
“I still believe we can establish a good partnership. I will definitely come back to discuss this again!”
Without another word, Zhang and his mascot left the room.
Kaika and Saya were left alone. In a desperate attempt to control her rampaging emotions, the prodigy bit her bottom lip until it bled. Saya wiped the blood from her lip and chin with a handkerchief. Kaika wanted to flip the table and smash the chairs against the wall, but doing so would impede her next steps. Kaika gripped her butler’s hand as hard as she could as they headed back to the car.
Once inside the vehicle, Kaika began gnawing at her knuckle. Saya hurriedly stopped her from hurting herself and offered her own left hand. Kaika bit into it with all her might. The moment she tasted iron, her boiling blood settled down.
“This is nothing.” She wrapped the handkerchief on her hand to stop the bleeding.
“I’m going to kill him.”
“…You told Zhang you have not given up on negotiating.”
“I didn’t want to alert him.”
“Are you sure attacking him is wise? The risks-”
“I know the risks. That man doesn’t care about danger or keeping face. He’s willing to crawl through mud to achieve his goal. Like he said, there’s no room for negotiations.” Kaika grinned. Her teeth creaked from how hard she clenched her jaw. “I’ll make him regret forcing my hand.”
You questioned my resolve.
Then taste it yourself.
“Sorry, Boss,” said Mao as she prepared a pot of oolong tea.
Zhang, who was lounging on the sofa behind her, turned his head to the side. “What for?”
“I blanked out for a moment earlier. I didn’t expect that Nikaido girl to suddenly ask me that question.”
“That surprised me too. Don’t worry about it.”
“Not just that… If I had brains like Zhi Zhu, I could be more useful to you. He’s always busy handling business operations, but all I can do is play along with your act.” Mao carried a tray with a teapot and cups to the table.
“A flying dragon is without feet yet flies.”
“Uh, okay. Can we skip to the explanation?” Mao took a seat on the same sofa, leaving enough space for another person between them.
Zhang chuckled. “Success comes from honing one’s abilities. Working on weaknesses isn’t a bad thing, but it’s more efficient to focus on strengths. Bantering with me in front of big shots is something only you can do. I don’t think anyone else can insult me so well.”
Mao frowned. “You were the one who taught me to act like that. It’s just a side effect.”
“It is, but it’s useful nonetheless.”
“Is it? I just don’t see the purpose.”
“It didn’t do much against those two girls, but it’s an effective tactic against lesser foes. The reason I could easily fend off NGC’s approach is because I’m wary of how dangerous Kaika Nikaido is. Hiding one’s talons is just as important as concealing one’s nest.”
“Is she really that dangerous? Her assistant I can understand. That woman was prepared to come at me during the entire meal.”
“Was she? I know next to nothing about fighting, so I’ll take your word for it. You should take mine regarding Nikaido. She even knew I like qipaos. Scary.”
“She did seem totally calm even after you pulled the rug out from under her.”
“Actually, I found that very strange. Anyone should get agitated when someone insults their resolve, but she showed no reaction at all.”
“Maybe she just doesn’t care?”
“No matter how talented she is, it’s impossible for her to hold such power at that age without having sacrificed anything important. Feeling no pride or guilt over that is unbelievable.”
Maybe it’s the opposite?
Was it enough of a blow to force her to completely kill her emotions?
Zhang had taken a hard stance against Kaika because he knew about her prudence. She thoroughly calculated her every move. There was no trace of emotion in the strategies she had taken, at least according to his investigation.
That girl may be more volatile than I thought.
“You sure it was a good idea making enemies with someone like that?” asked Mao.
“If I had the choice, I’d rather be friends with her. But uniting the triads is impossible if I welcome NGC into the Chinese underworld. It’s an economic dragon. Riding on that would ensure anyone a chance at power. The different triad societies will compete to get its support in order to gain advantages over the others. I have to keep outsiders from sparking another political tug-of-war until the triads have truly become one.”
Mao sighed. “I wish you’d put yourself in my position. I’m the one who has to protect your ass until then.” She rotated her shoulder and stretched her neck.
Maybe I’ve been working her too hard lately.
“I feel so tired,” said Zhang as he massaged his nape. “I’m taking the day off tomorrow.”
“You’re such a bum. I wonder what the members would say if they saw you lazing around like this.”
“Give me a break. I’m not young anymore.”
“You mean you’re really, really old.”
“Can you at least drop one ‘really’ from that?”
“I’ll think about it, no.”
“At least think a little longer! Anyway, I’ll stay in the house for the entire day. I’ll have Zhi Zhu handle things in my place. You can take the day off too.”
Mao’s eyes opened as wide as they could go. After blinking a few times, she stood up and moved behind him.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
She placed her fingers on his shoulders and pressed deep into his muscle. Without saying a word, she skillfully worked on his stiff shoulders, loosening them up with her cybernetic hands.
“You could make a living off those fingers.”
“Is that sexual harassment?”
He turned his neck and peeked at her face. “As if I’d harass someone who’s practically my daughter.”
She narrowed her eyes like a purring cat and bashfully smiled. “Thanks, Boss.”
He showed a gentle smile. “What for?”
It’s raining again…
Mao hated the rain, especially in summer. The moisture stuck to her skin and made her sweat a lot. Instead of her usual qipao, her attire consisted of a plain white shirt and cotton shorts. She had no reason to wear her rather raunchy chinese dress when Zhang, who not-so-secretly loved it, was not around. Though minimal in coverage, the tight-fitting dress functioned like a compact sauna in hot weather.
Umbrella in hand, she strolled along the street of a shopping district. Though she had already checked out several clothing stores, she had not bought anything yet. Coming up on her fifth store, the design of a red dress in the display window caught her eye. She went inside to take a closer look.
I wonder if Boss would like this?
It’s definitely skimpy enough.
Mao decided to buy it along with some matching accessories. The rain had already let up by the time she stepped out of the store.
After spending another hour shopping, she reached an area dotted with small restaurants and food stalls. The delightful aroma wafting from the shops caused her stomach to rumble. She checked her terminal and noticed that it was already past noon. Most of the establishments had many patrons seated or lining up for take out. Avoiding the crowds, she gravitated to the less popular shops.
Red bean buns…
Sweet rice cakes…
Isn’t there any real food here?
Her feet stopped in front of a small open-air shop selling scallion pancakes. It had no customers in line, so she came closer and read the prices posted on the wall.
Noticing her, the shopkeeper came to the front. “What’ll you have?”
“I’ll have two congyoubing. And please don’t put anything spicy in it.” She counted some money from her wallet.
A male voice came from behind her. “Do you speak Japanese?”
She reflexively closed her wallet and turned around. A man holding several shopping bags stood a few steps away.
Mao’s eyebrows gathered into a scowl. “Who are you?” She replied in Japanese because the man had called out to her the same way.
“Great. I noticed your accent, but I wasn’t sure. You’re better off not buying from this shop.”
“Are you from a competing store?” Her lips twisted into a condescending grin. “Smearing your rivals? Pathetic.”
“It’s not that.” He pointed into the shop, more specifically, at a corner of the small dining area.
Mao had to look very hard but eventually saw tiny black rectangles on the floor. “What are those?”
“Droppings. This shop has pests. Probably why there are no other customers. Well, if you’re into eating rat scat, I won’t stop you.”
Mao’s face turned white as a sheet of paper. “D-Did you say r-rat?”
“Hey, are you gonna buy or not?” asked the shopkeeper, impatience visible on his wrinkled, sweaty face.
At that moment, a large gray rat ran along the wall the passerby had pointed to.
Mao screamed in terror and jumped onto the man, pulling herself up by embracing his neck.
Instead of pushing her away, he placed a hand on her back and gave it a gentle pat. “Hey, it’s gone now. You can relax, okay?”
Mao gingerly turned her head and peeked at the wall. There was no rodent in sight. Her soaring pulse gradually slowed. She sighed in relief and turned back to the man, meeting his gaze. Realizing her embarrassing position, she frantically released his neck and stepped back.
“Sorry, I was just-”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a casual wave of his hand. He then turned around and walked away from the shop.
“Lady,” said the shopkeeper, “I’d appreciate it if you don’t cause a commotion in front of my store. If you’re not buying, please leave.”
Mao clenched her fist. If the Japanese passerby had not warned her of the pest, she might have been chewing on a pancake contaminated by those filthy, hateful, terrifying, disgusting vermin right now. She remembered that she had not thanked the man and searched for his figure. Mao found him in the midst of the crowd, walking alongside a girl with twintails and a young woman.
Water droplets tickled her cheek and arms. Rain began pouring in earnest, so she quickly moved all her bags to one hand and opened her umbrella. By the time she finished, the man and his companions were no longer in sight. She had lost him amidst the bustling pedestrians and their kaleidoscope of umbrellas.
She felt a strange melancholy at the transience of her encounter.
“Hey lady, are you listening to me?” The shopkeeper waved his hand in front of her face.
“You’re in the way.”
She kicked him in the gut, launching him towards the cooking counter. His face slid across the hot griddle, releasing steam and the smell of burning skin in its wake. He crashed to the floor along with his cooking utensils. Other pedestrians began taking pictures of the scene with their mobile terminals.
Wearing a sadistic smirk, Mao belittled him with her eyes and stepped on his butt. “If you have any complaints, come to the Soaring Serpent’s HQ.”
The crowd around them instantly dispersed. Holding his face in pain, the shopkeeper whimpered on the ground while croaking out apologies.