“A toast to leaving the hospital,” said Yama as he raised his wineglass.
Rin gently clinked her glass to his and took a sip of Pinot Grigio.
“On second thought, should you really be drinking?”
“You were the one who ordered the wine.”
“I kinda just went with the flow. Sorry about that.”
Rin smiled at him. “No worries. A bit of wine shouldn’t be a problem. I’m sorry too, for making you push me around the whole night.” She tapped the armrest of her wheelchair.
The chair’s mechanical design clashed with the ambience of the fancy restaurant. Though she worked at a rather classy restaurant herself, she rarely had the chance to dine in one. Unsure how to behave, she stuck out like a sore thumb.
“It’s no problem at all!” said Yama. “I’ll escort you everyday if you want!”
The same could be said for her date.
Yama looked uncomfortable in his stiff tuxedo. The restaurant was upscale, but none of the other diners had such formal attire. He was way too overdressed.
It was charming.
Yama was a decade older than her, but the way he tried too hard was endearing and cute.
He was nothing like Ageha. And that was a good thing.
Rin covered her mouth with a hand and giggled. “No need for that. Rehab is going well. I should be up and about in a month or so.”
“That’s great! The head chef will be happy. The new camerieras need someone to show them how the job is done. We’ve been cycling through newbies ever since you got hospitalized.”
“I’m surprised I still have a job, to be honest.”
“What are you on about? Everyone at Sapore loves you.”
“…More than anyone else, yeah.” Yama managed to say his line straight, but his cheeks glowed red from embarrassment.
Rin laughed out loud. A few of the neighboring diners sent them irritated glances for the ruckus, but she could not care less. It had been a while since she enjoyed a meal so much.
She reigned in her laughter. “Don’t say it if you’re gonna regret it.”
“I don’t regret it.” Still red-faced, he gazed at her with a solemn expression. “I’m serious, Rin.”
She knew he was. His feelings were plain as day.
But what about me?
A buzzing sound came from her purse.
“Sorry.” She took out her mobile and checked the display.
Rin gave Yama an apologetic smile. “I gotta take this.”
“Who is it?”
Yama’s expression withered as he mumbled, “What’s with that timing..?”
“I’d take it outside if I could, but it’s a bit inconvenient with wheels. Do you mind?”
“No, no. Go ahead.”
“Thanks.” She pressed a button and put the phone to her ear. “What’s up?”
“I have to ask you something,” said Ageha.
“I thought it was an emergency.” Rin sighed.
“It’s not an emergency, but it’s urgent.”
Then he dropped a completely unexpected question on her.
However, she did not even take a second to reply. “You don’t have to do that.”
“…Understood.” Ageha ended the call.
“What did he say?” asked Yama with a worried look.
“He just asked for my opinion about something.”
“But you seem really happy…”
“Really?” She touched her cheek. “It’s just your imagination. Anyway, back to what you were saying.”
“W-We can talk about that later.”
“Why wait? Please, tell me.”
Yama took the table napkin and used it to wipe his sweating forehead. Rin unconsciously grinned at how panicked he was. He took a deep breath to collect himself.
“I like you, Rin-chan. Would you please go out with me?”
“Sorry, that was too sudden right? Please forget what I said. Can we at least go back to being frie-”
“I agreed, Yama-san.” Rin took his floundering hand in hers and set it on the table.
“…You’re not joking?”
“Who’d joke about this?”
“I’m not dreaming?”
Rin pinched the back of his hand.
“IT HURTS!!! HELL YEAH!!!” shouted Yama as he shot up from his seat.
Everyone in the dining room glared at him. He sat back down while repeatedly bowing his head to the other patrons.
“You’ve gone up in the world since we last saw each other,” said Ageha.
“It’d be more accurate to say I’ve gone down, considering I’m in the underworld now.” Mei Xing gestured to the chair beside him. “Take a seat.”
Ageha sat down and looked around. The club was empty, apparently reserved for just the two of them. The guards had let Ageha inside surprisingly easily. He had expected at least a pat down before meeting the new dragon head of the resurrected Soaring Serpent Society, not that it really would have mattered given his body.
The bartender took their orders and prepared their drinks.
“I didn’t think you were interested in joining the triad,” said Ageha. “What made you change your mind?”
“I picked up a cat.”
“You mean that woman called Mao?”
“How did you know?”
“A little devil whispered to me.”
“Nikaido-sama is scary.”
“I know right. You better be careful when dealing with her.”
“I’ll do my best not to get in her way.”
The bartender placed two glasses filled with brandy in front of them. They drank down the pungent liquid in one stroke.
“Looks like you can handle your drink better,” said Mei Xing.
“A little bit. Can’t have you drinking me under the table every time.”
“Too bad. I was looking forward to that.”
“I’ll turn the tables on you someday.”
“Maybe Li Xue will be drinking with us by then.”
The bartender refilled their glasses.
Ageha raised his cup an inch from the counter and stared at its contents. “Are you sure about this?”
“I would’ve stayed at the inn if I wasn’t. The triad isn’t a place you can visit, much less lead, on a whim.”
“What did Setsu say?”
“She supported me all the way. She even helps me with the administrative work. Crunching numbers and personnel management is second nature to her. Her experience managing the inn for all those years seems to be paying off. I’m just a little worried she may be pushing herself too much.”
“It’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen. A partner who’ll forgive you for anything is not a reason to indulge but an incentive to improve.”
“Speaking from experience?”
Mei Xing chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“What about Li Xue?”
“…Her safety is my biggest worry, actually. But I’ve thought about that ever since we were attacked. I’m already in danger just by being related to my father. Even if I didn’t involve myself in the triad, I think people would still try to use my lineage for their own purposes.”
“Is triad leadership decided by blood?”
“It usually isn’t, but Father was a special case. Even before he took the top seat, he was loved by those under him and feared by those against him. For decades, he was instrumental in expanding and strengthening the triad’s power in China. Most importantly, the infighting between the triads disappeared during his reign, as short as it was. His name alone carries a lot of influence, and I inherited that. That’s why I got to the dragon head seat in such a short time. I’m sure the bosses who agreed to put me on the pedestal are just trying to use my name, but that’s fine for now.”
“You dove into the underworld to protect Li Xue? If it’s just that, I’m sure I can manage something. It’s not too late to change your mind.”
“Don’t misunderstand. It’s not enough for us to be safe. I can’t forget the powerlessness I felt when Zhi Zhu ordered his men to kill my daughter. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do anything to save her. I could only cry and beg, but that didn’t change a thing. I’d rather die than experience that again. That’s why I need real power to protect my family with my own hands.”
Ageha glanced at the ring on his hand, the first and only present he received from Kureha. “I can understand that.”
“I also have other reasons for doing this.”
Mei Xing told Ageha about Mao’s testimony regarding his father in detail. Ageha finally understood why Mei Xing, who used to hate his father, chose to follow in his footsteps.
“Father was protecting me and my family from the shadows, but I abandoned him without knowing anything. I want to clear that debt.”
“I guess even families are not immune to misunderstandings.”
“Of course not. But I believe it’s possible to overcome such mistakes precisely because we are family. It’s a little too late for me and my father though.”
Ageha recalled the faces of those close to him. A lot of things had happened between them, but despite all that, Saya, Kaika, and Arashi had become unquestionably irreplaceable to him.
Ageha took a swig of his liquor. “So, what am I doing here? You didn’t ask me to fly all the way to China to chat, right?”
“I looked forward to drinking with you again the most, but you’re right. I called you as a representative of Nikaido-sama. I want to give her a gift for saving my family.” Mei Xing emptied his glass and got up from the stool.
Ageha followed suit. Mei Xing led him across the lounge area and inside an employee-only labeled corridor. After turning a corner in the hallway, they reached a closed wooden door. Mei Xing knocked twice and opened it. A familiar stench of rust wafted through the air.
Inside was a woman in a miniskirt qipao. She was surprisingly well-endowed despite her slender physique. Beside her was someone Ageha recognized.
But she looked different than he remembered.
She did not look like this when he had threatened her in her bathroom.
Back then, she was still complete.
Akane was on a chair, completely naked. Rather than sitting, it was more accurate to say she was placed on it. She had no arms or legs.
“I’m sure you already know Kogami, so I’ll skip her introduction.” Mei Xing walked past Akane. “This is my bodyguard, Mao. Mao, this is Ageha Shikimi, the friend I owe my life to.”
Ageha pointed at Mao with his eyes. “Did she do this?”
“No, no. Mao caught her for me, but she is too kind for torture. I had a specialist take care of Kogami.”
The carefree smile on Mei Xing’s face did not falter. His thin eyes made it hard to ascertain what exactly he was feeling as he gazed at the mutilated woman.
Blood seeped out of the sutured wounds on Akane’s shoulders and hips. Her eyes were half-open, but Ageha could not tell if consciousness still existed beyond them.
“This woman owes you too, right?” asked Mei Xing.
“Where did you hear that?”
“From Kogami herself. She told us everything after we took off her fingernails. Our specialist got too excited and kept going, so she ended up like this. I didn’t stop him so I’m equally at fault, I guess.”
“You were watching?”
“Yes, I wanted to hear the information myself.”
But she already told you everything while her limbs were still attached.
Ageha did not voice his thoughts. Judging from Mei Xing’s expression, it was neither information nor vengeance that motivated Akane’s torture. She was an example.
Akane Kogami had been chosen as the sacrifice to etch Mei Xing’s name into the annals of the underworld.
“Why are you showing this to me?” asked Ageha.
“She is the gift. We’re done with her, so you can take her if you want.”
“…Give me a minute. I need to ask my employer.”
“Hurry up. The boss is a busy man,” said Mao as she sent an irritated glare towards Ageha.
“You can joke with me all you want,” said Mei Xing, “but there are limits. Ageha is my guest.”
Regret flitted across Mao’s face. “Sorry, Boss.” She then bowed to the visitor. “Sorry too, Shikimi-san.”
“I don’t mind. I’m used to unreasonable demands from women.”
Ageha called Kaika on his mobile. After a few rings, she answered.
“I have Akane in front of me right now. Mei Xing is giving her to you as a gift. She lost her arms and legs during the triad’s interrogation. What should I do with her?”
“I see. Just kill her. I have no taste for cruelty. Get whatever info you can from Mei Xing. I’m sure she spilled everything already.”
“Understood.” Ageha cut the call.
“Did you reach a decision?” asked Mei Xing.
“I need to call one more person.” Ageha searched for another name in his contact list.
The call connected.
“I have to ask you something,” he said.
“I thought it was an emergency,” said Rin.
“It’s not an emergency, but it’s urgent. I have Akane in front of me right now. She lost her arms and legs due to torture and is practically a living corpse. Kai told me to put her out of her misery. What do you think?”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“…Understood.” Ageha pressed the red button and pocketed his mobile. He turned to Mei Xing. “Can I ask you a favor?”
Mei Xing made a gentle smile. “What are friends for?”
“I was told to keep her alive in that state. Can you do that for me?”
“Natsume-san’s request, I take it? Consider it done.” Mei Xing opened the door leading back to the hallway. “That concludes official business. Let’s go back to the bar and have a few more rounds.”
Ageha noticed Mao’s affectionate gaze on Mei Xing’s back as the two men left the room.
“Isn’t Mao going to join us?” asked Ageha.
“I figured we’d drink with just us guys, but I can ask her if you want.”
“No, I’ve had enough of that condescending stare for one night.”
“That’s just an act. She’s really a kind girl.”
“If you peel away enough layers, every person in this world is kind.”
“It’s unfortunate that people can only see and touch the layers, not the core.”
“Something unreachable is meaningless.”
“I disagree on one point. A person’s core isn’t unreachable. It’s just a matter of time and effort.”
“Like how you reached Mao’s core? It’s obvious she likes you.”
Mei Xing laughed. “I’ve yet to even scratch her surface.”
They arrived at the bar and returned to their seats. Refreshed drinks were waiting for them on the counter.
Ageha took a sip, pacing himself. “Are you sleeping with her?”
“The hell kinda answer is that?”
“She just sees my father’s shadow when she looks at me. I won’t take advantage of that. Things might be different if she comes to see me as myself.”
“That’s not what I meant. You’re married.”
“Setsu’s fine with it. We have an open relationship. We’ve never had other partners though.”
Ageha shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“That’s unexpected from a guy who drags around a bunch of beauties everywhere.”
“I only have eyes for Saya. I just tease her because I love the face she makes when she gets jealous.”
“But you were looking at Mao’s breasts earlier.”
“Can you blame me? They’re amazing.”
“You just said you only have eyes for-”
“A figure of speech.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
A knock came from the door.
“It’s open,” said Kaika.
Saya entered the bedroom and shut the door. “You called, Ojousama?”
Kaika rotated her swivel chair to face her butler. “I have something to ask you.”
“I am all ears,” said Saya.
For weeks, Kaika had debated with herself whether to confirm her suspicions or not. In the end, she had decided to ask the dangerous question.
“Who do you think tricked Zhang into thinking that his son died?”
Saya thought for a moment. “It is impossible to say for certain, but it is likely that Zhi Zhu did it to make Zhang come after you. If you and Zhang fell together, he would have had control of the triads. With his level of skill, he was probably confident he’d succeed in killing Mei Xing anyway and sent the information in advance so Zhang could catch us before we left the States.”
“But Mei Xing’s story doesn’t match that. He said Zhi Zhu accused him of being a traitor and was loyal to Zhang to the end.”
“Even if we take Mei Xing’s story at face value, Zhi Zhu’s words are completely untrustworthy.”
“True. Zhang received the false information too quickly, even before Ageha and Arashi landed in China. Not only that, Zhang didn’t verify the info before launching his attack. His source was trustworthy, at least in his eyes. That deception requires extensive manipulation of information within the triad, and Zhi Zhu was in the perfect position to do just that.”
“I believe that is correct.”
Kaika closed her eyes, brows furrowed.
I knew it.
She closely observed her butler. “How did you know that?”
“Zhang indeed got word of Mei Xing’s death quickly. But how did you know that was before Ageha arrived in China? Zhang explained that detail only to me.”
Saya’s expression did not change one bit. “I just assumed it was correct because you mentioned it.”
“That isn’t like you, Saya. If I mention something you don’t know or expect, you always ask about it. You’ve always been like that. But just now, you agreed with information only I should know.”
“I just considered the timing. If Zhang got the fake news after Ageha’s arrival, it would be near impossible for Mao’s group to catch us at the hotel. They would not have had enough time to prepare the attack.”
“…You’re right. Perfectly right.” Kaika shook her head. “But you also made a mistake.”
Saya did not break eye contact with Kaika, as if confident in her innocence.
Kaika stood up from her chair and approached her butler. “Why are you so calm? I’m interrogating you right now, you know?”
Saya’s eyebrows flinched.
“There,” said Kaika as she pointed at Saya’s face. “That was the reaction I was looking for. But it happened too late. You’re too prepared for this line of questioning. Even an innocent person can appear guilty depending on the situation. Considering our relationship, you should’ve been more aggravated and defensive the moment I doubted you. But you stayed unnaturally calm.”
Saya looked down and closed her eyes without replying.
“Deception isn’t about logic. It’s about emotion. And faking that becomes harder the more a person knows you. And I know you.”
“…My apologies, Ojousama.” Saya bowed deeply. “It is as you surmised.”
Of course it is.
But I didn’t want to be right.
Not this time.
Saya raised her head, not an ounce of guilt in her expression. “I leaked the fake information about Mei Xing’s death to Zhang.”
“I see. I already know, but I’ll ask why anyway.”
“I did it because it was the best course of action. It was something you would have done, Ojousama.”
“But I didn’t do it.”
“That is because you are bound by your oath to Ageha, and Ageha is Mei Xing’s friend.”
“And you’re his lover.”
“But I can lie to him if I need to. Zhang’s death is for everyone’s sake. You will have more control over Guangxi, and Ageha and Arashi will face less danger with one less formidable enemy. It turned out even better than I expected when Mei Xing became the dragon head of the Soaring Serpent Society. Having a true ally in China puts us all in a better position.”
“…Ageha cannot know about this.”
Kaika did not miss the flash of irritation on her butler’s face.
“But what about your oath?”
Kaika knew there would come a time when she would break her promise with Ageha, and that was now.
“I’ll break it. He has to be able to trust you, Saya.”
Even if that means losing his trust in me one day.
“…What is with that? Why are you breaking it so easily? He trusts you.”
“Because I don’t want this to get between the two of you.”
“…He forgave you for faking my death. I am certain he will forgive me for this.”
“He probably will, but it isn’t worth risking.”
My word isn’t that valuable anyway.
“Why are you doing this, Ojousama? This is not like you at all. The plot to kill Zhang using the Americans should have been the first thing you came up with. …You have changed.”
Saya was correct. Kaika had considered the exact same plan but dismissed it. She had grown too afraid of losing Ageha. The extra benefits from killing Zhang were not worth the risk.
“…Is it pity?” Saya gave Kaika an accusatory look.
“Do you think you can afford to break your promises to him, while I can’t lie to him even once? Do you think… he cares about you more than he does for me?” Saya bit her lips as tears gathered at the corners of her eyes.
I’m a failure as a mistress.
Why did I let it get to this point?
Kaika and Ageha thought Saya looked adorable when she acted jealous.
But this was different.
There was nothing cute to see here.
Helen of Troy was famous as the face that launched a thousand ships, but that was inaccurate. What caused the Trojan war was her husband’s jealousy. No other emotion ignited illogical anger to such an extent.
“That’s not it at all, Saya! I’ve never thought of Ageha that way!”
“You expect me to believe that after your breakdown at the hotel?”
“That’s different! That’s…”
Is he family?
But I don’t care about family.
And I don’t have friends.
I just have tools.
Then how is he different?
“See!? You cannot even answer!” Saya wiped her tears on her forearms, soiling her pristine white sleeves.
No, it really is different.
He is myself.
A broken human.
A former human.
Losing him means losing a part of myself.
Kaika could not say that in fear of worsening the situation.
“I care about him as a tool, nothing more. Trust me, Saya.”
“I wish I could.” Saya’s words were broken up by sobs. “But how can I do that after you killed Kureha-Ojousama!?”
Kaika’s mind ground to a halt, but her deeply ingrained training in deception caused her body to move anyway.
“Do you even hear yourself right now? How can you even think that!?”
Righteous rage seethed from Kaika’s gaze. Her breathing got rough from indignation.
Her acting was flawless. She was the picture of innocence.
“It is useless. I knew I could never see through your lies, so I got evidence. I tracked down the sister of the maid you used to leak my absence that night. You invited Kousuke’s attack so Kureha would get killed… All so you could control Ageha!”
It’s no use.
I can’t lie my way through this.
That’s not it.
I don’t want to.
She decided to trust in Saya.
To entrust her beloved sister with the truth.
And so Kaika confessed.
“That’s not it… I didn’t want that to happen. I knew it was possible, but so were many other outcomes. It was just a gamble, like any other… That’s the truth, Saya. Please believe me.”
“I want to believe you, Ojousama. I really do. But please, tell me how?”
“I…” Kaika’s face slackened and lost all expression. “I don’t know.”
The lone devil trusted too little, and thus got none in return.
Changing her ways at this point was too little and too late.
She offered her heart, a thing she did not have a year before, and it got smashed to pieces.
Tears streamed down her face, but she did not cry out. Kaika just stood there, unsure what to think or what to do.
Seeing her state, Saya calmed down. She walked closer to Kaika and bent her knees to match her height.
“I am sorry, Ojousama. I got too emotional… and said too much. I am very sorry.”
Saya believes me.
She believes me!
Kaika extended her right hand. She reached out for her loyal butler, her loving sister, her perfect tool.
But she grasped only air.
Saya had stepped back.
“I love you, Kaika. But that doesn’t mean I can forgive anything.”
Saya’s casual speech and cold tone terrorized her. Kaika trembled.
“If this is about Kureha, I told you, I didn’t want that to happen!”
“It’s not that. We’ve all done things we aren’t proud of. But I won’t give up Ageha to anyone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being this weak. I’m sorry for loving the same man.”
“I don’t feel that way about him! Why can’t you understand that!?”
“I won’t tell him about Kureha-Ojousama. And you won’t tell him about my involvement in Zhang’s death. That’s a fair trade, right?” Saya headed for the door.
It was not fair at all.
Ageha would easily forgive Saya’s plot to kill Zhang, but he would never forgive Kaika for killing Kureha, even if it was half by accident.
Even now, Saya cared for and prioritized her.
“Wait!” Kaika grabbed her vest from behind.
The butler halted. She stifled her sobs with all her might, but she could not stop her shoulders from jerking. Saya seemed like a newborn fawn trying to stand on its own legs for the first time.
She is hurting much more than I am.
Saya did not care for anyone or anything more than she did for Kaika and Ageha. Now she was being pulled apart from both ends by her two-pronged jealousy. The late-blooming queen-of-all-trades had no resistance against it. The green-eyed monster was devouring her from within.
Kaika let go. Saya hurriedly left the room.
Left alone, Kaika sank to the floor. She sat there motionless, a lifeless doll staring blankly at the door.
About ten minutes passed.
Kaika pulsed back to life.
Something like this…
Getting in between me and Saya…
Her fledgling attempts at trusting others had taught Kaika despair.
But they had also taught her hope.
And unlike Ageha or Saya, she was tough as nails.
I’ll crush that jealousy to dust.
She picked herself up and headed for the study.
From underneath the bed, Arashi watched her mistress leave the room.
Half an hour ago, she had come into Kaika’s bedroom while the owner was away to grab some dolphin cookies. Ever since Kaika had used those treats to teach her the legendary skill “Banzai,” she had gotten addicted to them. Whenever she got a craving for some, she secretly took a few pieces from Kaika’s bedside drawer.
Just the other day, Arashi had accompanied her mistress outside to restock the dwindling cookie supply. She knew she could sneak some out without getting noticed.
But Kaika had suddenly entered the room while Arashi was ransacking the stash. With no other escape route, Arashi had rolled underneath the bed before being seen, accidentally bringing the whole tub of cookies with her. Soon after, Saya had entered the bedroom to speak with Kaika. Then a fight had broken out between them.
I ate half of them…
She had gotten so engrossed with the rare spectacle that she munched on the dolphin cookies without noticing.
Arashi crawled out of the narrow space and listened through the door for any possible witnesses. Hearing nothing, she grabbed a few more cookies and stealthily left the room.
“Hello?” Mitsuki wiped the sweat off her face with a towel while speaking to her mobile. “Why’d you call so early in the morning? Don’t tell me you wanna eat out again?”
She had just finished the first part of her daily kendo training when she received a call from Arashi. The shouts of men practicing sword swings made it hard to talk, so she jogged to the dressing room.
“I need… some advice,” said Arashi.
“Uhm… Can you keep this a secret? You can’t tell… anyone.”
“I swear on my father’s grave.”
“I have this friend… and another friend. They are really close, like sisters, but they got into a fight. They haven’t been getting along well since then. What can I do… to help them make up?”
Mitsuki breathed a sigh of relief.
I was worried it was about Ageha for a second.
I’m glad it’s nothing big.
“That depends. What were they fighting about?”
“The older one, let’s call her S, planned something… behind her friend’s back. Her friend, let’s call her K, killed someone named Kureha-”
“Wait, did you just say killed?”
So much for nothing big.
Why does everything about Arashi end up with someone dying?
“Okay, I’ve switched gears. Go on.”
Arashi did her best to explain, but Mitsuki could barely grasp the situation. It seemed the circumstances were fairly complex. Moreover, Arashi’s lacking vocabulary made it even harder to understand.
Mitsuki rubbed her chin. “I think it’s just a misunderstanding. Try talking to each of them separately and ask them to talk it over.”
She just made up some random advice to get through the call. Mitsuki did not want Arashi to think she could not be depended on. It had been difficult to convince the sleepy-eyed teen that she was the big sister in their relationship. The process had taken a lot of restaurant bills and antacids. Mitsuki did not want to waste that.
“Thanks… for the advice. K is calling. I have to go. Later.”
Mitsuki felt satisfied having helped out a friend in need.
Sakuya opened her eyes. She was in the bath, neck-deep in steaming water. The switching had gotten more frequent and random. Strangely, Mitsuki never seized control while Sakuya was awake. It was always the other way around.
S and K.
Saya Saionji and Kaika Nikaido.
K killed Kureha.
This is going to be fun!
Sakuya dipped her head into the water and blew bubbles with her laughter.
Valeriya briskly typed on her keyboard and hit enter.
Her chat avatar was the orgasmic, goo-speckled face of a heterochromatic goth loli with blond twintails.
A reply appeared on her screen in less than a second.
“My name is Nick, not Nicky. And please stop using that greeting. It doesn’t work when you’re five foot ten.”
“You type ridiculously fast, as usual.”
“I’m not typing. I’m texting on my mobile. It’s an innate skill of my people. BTW, your avatar is NSFW.”
“That’s just cream on her face.”
“Do you expect me to explain that every time someone looks over my shoulder?”
“Is there anyone who would actually do that?”
“Well, no, not anymore.”
“I take it that means you’ve gotten rid of the geezers? ／人◕ ‿‿ ◕人＼”
“Yeah, I control the people’s army now. I planned to inform you after doing the clean up, but your ears are sharper than I thought. As promised, you can have the mines in Palawan.”
“d(*・ω・*)b♪ Glad to see the people and money I gave you were put to good use.”
“Next is the Muslim Congregation. I look forward to having your continued support.”
“You’ll have it as long as you stick to the deal. Kaika is getting bigger by the moment (lol I wasn’t trying to be funny). She has solid ties in China now.”
“I underestimated her. Maybe I should’ve sided with her when I had the chance.”
“And miss out on all this fun?”
“You’re the only one having fun.”
“Then join in! 〜(￣▽￣〜)(〜￣▽￣)〜”
“Pass. I think I’ll stick to the sidelines for this one.”
A knock came from Valeriya’s door.
“I have a visitor. Chat with ya later. Bye-ni~” Valeriya switched her active screen to the anime series she was watching earlier. “It’s open.”
Viktor entered the study. “I heard Zhang was killed by the Americans.”
“In the bath. Don’t tell me you want me to guard her there too?”
“Try it and I’ll rip out your spine. I’ll even shout ‘Fatality’ as I do it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. The less work, the better. I’m already exhausted from chasing after her when she runs around with that tomboy.”
“Be careful with Arashi Tanizaki.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve seen her in action. Anyway, about Zhang.”
“Yeah, you heard right.”
“Zhi Zhu screwed up?”
“Zhi Zhu is dead.”
“…That monster died? That’s unexpected.”
“No, that part went according to plan.”
“I’ve been out of the loop.”
“Sorry, that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted you to focus on protecting Mitsuki.”
Viktor shrugged. “That’s okay. But can you at least explain this plan of yours?”
“I just pitted a monster against a monster. If Kaika went against Zhang, it was inevitable that Ageha would fight Zhi Zhu. Once Zhi Zhu is gone, Zhang would be defenseless.”
“That kid killed Zhi Zhu?”
“Of course he did. I wouldn’t have chosen him for the part if he wasn’t capable of it. Zhang dying in the States was a stroke of good luck. When I heard about that, I got ready to stick my fork into the triads. The problem is what happened after that. Zhang’s son Mei Xing became the new dragon head.”
“…That’s a problem. If he finds out that we killed his mother-”
“I killed his mother. You went on my orders and bear no responsibility. It was an immature decision on my part.”
“You were young. That’s normal.”
“Doesn’t make it any less stupid. I thought losing his wife would make Zhang more vulnerable, but it backfired and made him more dangerous. If the son is anything like his father…”
Viktor’s stern face grew grim.
Valeriya leaned back in her chair. “What’s worse, Mei Xing is in cahoots with Kaika. Trying to kill him might trigger a domino effect I can’t control.”
“You better give up on China for now.”
“Right. That’s a dead end. Talk about digging my own grave.” She rubbed her temples.
“Flustered because you didn’t get what you wanted? I thought you’d matured, but it seems you’re still the girl who tried to pick a fight with me decades ago.”
“Don’t you mean ‘the girl who kicked your ass?’”
“I remember it the other way around.”
“That’s called Alzheimer’s.” Valeriya unwrapped a lollipop and gave it a lick. “Mitsuki should be getting out of the bath soon.”
“I’ll get back to work then.” He opened the door and stepped outside.
“Thank you for coming back, Viktor.”
Keeping his back to her, he waved a hand before disappearing from view.
“Sign the contract with NGC, General,” said a plump woman with curly brown hair. “Make sure to reverse engineer their technology once we get it.”
Walker stifled a sigh. “Yes, Senator Garvey.”
“That’s all. You may go.”
After a perfect salute, Walker left the senator’s office. He felt the urge to smoke because the conversation, if one-sided prattle could be called that, had left a bad taste in his mouth.
How the mighty have fallen.
Senator Garvey was a retired military officer. She had never fought in any wars, but the stories of her valor in peacekeeping missions were abundant. Now she was just a fat pig with a fat brain.
Does she really think Nikaido will provide us with their best technology?
The US is too powerful.
If my read on that girl is right, she’ll favor the other countries to even the field.
But that’s alright.
America did not have advanced cybernetics technology because the government did not invest in its development. The torturous pain involved in nerve alignment and the requirement of body modification did not fit well with their democratic ideals and adherence to human rights. Instead, they had devoted their infantry research on armored suits, which had progressed quite nicely in recent years.
We don’t need help.
But buying some of their supplies at least guarantees it doesn’t go anywhere else.
And the technology we do get will give us a rough idea of what we’re up against.
The politicians, rotting on their thrones of comfort and abundance, had no idea what was coming.
Peace dulled not only the body but also the mind.
Walker, along with many high-ranking US military officers, shared that belief.
The only thing left to do was to make sure the rest of the world agreed with them.
Ageha and Saya arrived at the Nikaido estate courtyard. Arashi was already there, curled up on a hammock. Kaika, the one who called them, got up from her chair and walked over.
The lovers traded glances, hoping one of them had a clue as to what was going on.
“You’re finally here.” Kaika placed her knuckles on her hips. “I was getting sick of waiting.”
“We rushed over because you said you it was important,” said Ageha.
“Then why are we in the courtyard?” asked Saya. “If we are to discuss vital information, the drawing room is more secure.”
“No, this place is perfect for what I’m about to say.”
Ageha crossed his arms. “Then hurry up and say it.”
“Listen! I have an announcement to make!”
Everyone in the garden focused on her. Kaika proudly thrust out her left hand. The platinum band on her ring finger glittered in the sunlight.
“Congratulate me! I got engaged!”