Chapter One: Engagement

The girl strode into the spotlight, her twintails gently swaying behind her. Bathed in brightness, her hair and dress, both boldly black, emitted a captivating sheen. Her childlike face, milky white skin, and slender arms would have given an angelic impression if not for her brutally confident smile. In her hands was a Stradivarius violin, an instrument of the highest order. With practiced grace, she gently placed her chin on the chinrest and raised the bow in her right hand. Her eyes swiveled to her left, landing on her partner.

The lady at the piano replied with a subtle nod, her face vacant of emotion. Closing the eye uncurtained by her sloping fringe, she slowly raised her right hand over the keyboard as if casting a spell on it. Quite a spell it was, captivating the audience enough to elicit gasps and amorous sighs. Of course, her elegant features and perfectly toned shoulders, in full display above her white tube dress, were partly responsible for such a reception.

Men and women in formal attire surrounded the two performers, all of them waiting with bated breath. Even the servers bustling around the large hall paused their work, drawn in by the suspense.

A gentle melody filled the room as the girl caressed the violin strings with her bow. After keeping silent for a few notes, the pianist began massaging the white and black keys, creating a rich backdrop to the violin’s hymn. The musical piece began with gentle hums and taps, but it soon picked up volume and beat. The girl’s relaxed brushes turned into powerful strokes. Tap. Poke. Slice. Thrust. As if wielding a sword, she cut into the violin. The air trembled in glee. Eyes closed, a serious yet excited expression floated on her face.

Although relegated to accompaniment, the piano’s melody was by no means inferior. The lady expertly supported the whimsical nature of the girl’s violin without ever overstepping her bounds. They evoked the ideal image of a mistress and servant, by no means equal in standing but each irreplaceable to the other.

The audience reveled in the riveting melody they weaved. A number had their eyes closed, but most could not look away from the artists, whose improvised choreography rivaled their music in beauty. The glittering chandeliers, million-dollar paintings, and ornate fixtures around them faded into nothingness.

Crystal droplets crept down the girl’s brow as the performance reached its climax. Her fingers blurred while dancing on the strings. Everyone around them held their breath, hoping for the exhibition to never end. Without dialing down the tempo, the girl tore through the most complicated part of the piece. Typical of the girl’s personality, the intensity barely waned towards the finish. After whipping out five more rapid strokes, she raised the bow above her head, bringing the show to a conclusion.

Silence enveloped the room. Sweat trickled down the girl’s raised arm, rolling down her armpit before disappearing into her dress. After steadying her breath, she opened her eyes and gave the audience a dashing smile.

“Bravo!!!” shouted a man from the crowd.

Applause shook the hall.

Kaika lowered her instrument and curtsied. Saya stood up from the piano bench and took her place beside her mistress. They both took a bow while bracing themselves against the wave of cheers.

Ageha clapped gently as he gazed at his two companions. He could not exert too much force in applauding as he did not want to attract attention by producing a dull clanking sound. Kaika would definitely complain if his alloy palms robbed even a millisecond of her spotlight.

A blond young man in a tuxedo approached the musicians, specifically Kaika. With a bright smile, he spoke with her while gesturing vividly with his arms. Kaika returned his eagerness with an affectionate smile, one that would be directed at a friend or someone even closer, like a lover.

And that was appropriate. The young man of twenty was her fiance, Maxwell Garvey.

Ageha had seen pictures, but Maxwell, or Max as Kaika called him, looked even more handsome in person. Slim, tall, sharp features, and a fashionable hairstyle made him look like a magazine model.

Still, this is one hell of a party.

More than two hundred guests had come to the event. That would have been normal if it was the actual engagement party, but this was only a “pre-engagement” party, whatever that meant. Supposedly only a select few were invited.

I don’t get rich people.

Where did Kai get this many people anyway?

From his perspective, Kaika was quite the recluse. She spent most of her time in the mansion for safety, and he usually accompanied her when she went outside. How did she know so many people, VIPs at that? About half of the guests were American and probably invited by Max’s side, but that still left a good hundred something people unaccounted for.

Ageha stood a good distance away from the piano while watching their performance. Saya noticed his gaze and sent him a sweet smile, which he promptly returned. Soon after, more guests surrounded the pair, congratulating them for a job well done.

Opening the party with a musical exhibition was Kaika’s idea. According to her, it would be a wonderful pre-engagement present for Max and a way to boost her popularity among the upper class. Based on the applause earlier, her plan had proven to be a success. Ageha knew little about classical music, but even he could tell the performance went beyond what amateurs could do.

Tonight, he was just another guest among many. Kaika had actually asked him to cook for the event, but he declined because he lacked catering experience. Besides, no self respecting team of chefs would follow someone they did not even know, no matter how skilled that person was. With head chef Kirishima’s approval, his old team in Sapore could have taken the job, but the party was held in the States, making that impossible. Ageha would not have chosen that option anyway. While he, Rin, and Yama were on friendly terms, a bit of awkwardness remained between them. He would rather not be around the happy couple more than necessary.

A group of musicians by the far wall began playing soft music. Several couples stepped onto the dance floor.

The swarm of people around Kaika and Saya eventually dispersed, leaving only Max. With an apologetic face, he gently rubbed his nose with his knuckle, showing off his boyish charm. After Max left to tend to his guests, Kaika headed towards Ageha, leaving Saya to entertain Nikaido’s share of visitors. Picking up on his mistress’s intention, Ageha took two drinks from one of the roaming servers and waited for her to come over.

“I’m beat!” said Kaika while extending a hand towards him.

Ageha offered her the glass of sparkling grape juice in his left hand. “It was your idea.”

Kaika waved off the juice and pointed to the glass of moscato in his right. “Not the performance. The politicking.”

While raising a brow, Ageha handed her the wine. “You do know it’s illegal to drink at your age here, right?”

“It’s illegal in Japan and China too, but no one cares.” She chugged down the fruity white wine. “Besides, being lawful is the last thing anyone expects from anyone in this room.”

“You seem to be in perfect company then.”

“True, doesn’t make it any less tiresome.”

Ageha was reminded that sarcasm rarely worked on the self-proclaimed villain. “You say that, but you seemed to be delighted chatting with that kid.”

“That kid? Max?”

“Who else?” A hint of annoyance slipped into his tone.

Kaika peered at his face. “…Are you jealous?”

“Alcohol must’ve burned away more of your brain cells than I thought. It was just an observation.”

“So is this.”

“Well, you observed wrong.”

“So did you.”

“Are you sure you should be saying that? This is your engagement party.”

“Pre-engagement party.”

“Whatever. You shouldn’t talk that way about your fiance, especially here.” Ageha glanced around, checking if any guests were close enough to overhear.

“What way? I just refuted being delighted. Doesn’t mean I disliked it. I happen to be fond of Max, though of course not as much as vice-versa. I’m irresistible, after all.”

“Irritating is more like it.”

“Stop it with the jealousy. I’m flattered, but it’s unseemly.”

“Like I said, I’m not-”

“Your attention is better directed somewhere else.” Kaika pointed across the hall with her eyes.

At the end of her gaze was Saya, surrounded by young men, probably sons of the magnates attending the party.

“Aren’t you worried?”

Ageha shook his head. “Of course not.”

Then Saya began dancing with one of her suitors as the others watched on, impatiently waiting their turn.

Snap.

Ageha’s glass broke at the stem, causing the bowl to fall towards the floor. His bionic eyes immediately grasped the vector, enabling him to catch the bowl without spilling the contents.

“Should I be exasperated or impressed?” asked Kaika.

“I’m exasperated at myself already, so go with the latter.” Ageha motioned to a server and handed over the broken glass, foot and all.

“Judging from that reaction, there seems to be trouble brewing in paradise.”

“No, not at all. Instead of worrying about our relationship, you should focus more on yours.”

“Max and I are doing just fine.”

“Not him. With Saya.”

“…You noticed. And I thought we hid it pretty well.”

“I’m not an esper like you, but I’m not dense.”

“Thank god for that.”

Ageha chose to ignore the comment, unsure whether it was sincere or sarcastic. It was probably the latter considering Kaika’s use of that word.

“Saya hasn’t changed at all when we’re alone, but she’s a bit awkward around you.”

“Glad I wasn’t the one who gave it away.”

“I stopped caring about how you act ages ago. Worrying about it’ll just give me headaches.”

Kaika made a complicated expression, dyed with both dissatisfaction and amusement. “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”

Even Ageha was unsure how he felt about Kaika’s actions. A combination of trust and resignation wafted inside him whenever he considered it. Had he grown to completely trust the little devil or had he simply given up on trying to figure her out? Her past actions had tipped the scales in both directions.

“…Is there anything I can do?”

“…No. That’ll only make things worse. Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

Ageha looked into Kaika’s eyes. “You didn’t… fall in love with me, did you?”

Kaika’s eyebrows shot up. They silently stared at each other for a few moments. Then they burst into laughter.

“Wow, that really took the edge off.” Kaika labored to control her laughter. “Of all the things you could ask during my engagement party.”

“Pre-engagement party.”

“Touché.”

A server with a tray of hors d’oeuvres approached. Ageha flagged him with his eyes and took two small pastries, offering one to Kaika. She took a bite of the three-inch crescent-shaped turnover, while he popped the entire thing into his mouth.

Kaika seductively licked the grease from her lips. “Empanadillas? The crust is good, but the filling lacks punch.”

“I tried some chorizo slices earlier. Same problem. At least the stuffed olives were okay.”

“You can’t really go wrong with that though. Maybe they adjusted the seasoning for the American palate.” Having lost interest, she handed off the remaining pastry to one of the servers.

“But tapas should be a bit more flavorful. You can’t just abandon tradition like that.”

“Says the guy who never hesitates to purposely ignore conventions in his cooking.”

“Risk-taking and playing it safe are polar opposites.”

“Hmm. Right.”

Considering what he had tried so far, Ageha slightly regretted not challenging himself when offered to cater for the party. Putting aside the troubles of execution, he would have prepared a better menu than what was being served.

A voice cut across them. “E-Excuse me.”

They both turned to the source and saw a dolled up young woman in a peach-tinged evening dress. Her chocolate brown hair was gathered into a neat bun behind her head, and flashy gemstones decorated her ears and neck.

“Uh oh, here they come,” mumbled Kaika.

Ageha quickly wore a cameriere smile. “Yes, what can I do for you, my lady?”

A faint blush covered the woman’s cheeks as she shot a furtive glance at Kaika.

Kaika extended her hand towards the lady. “Let me introduce you. This is Jamie Armstrong, the youngest daughter of Doctor Armstrong, CEO of Falcon Pharmaceuticals. And this is Ageha Shikimi, my personal chef.”

“It is a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Shikimi.”

“Likewise.” Being Japanese, Ageha began to bow but caught himself after seeing Jamie extend her hand. Caught in an awkward pose, Ageha took her hand and gently kissed it.

“M-Mr. Shikimi!” said Jamie in a frantic tone.

“Perhaps I was too forward?” Ageha released her hand and looked into her grey eyes without a hint of nervousness.

Jamie was by no means unattractive, but being around Kaika and Saya almost everyday had acclimated Ageha to unnatural beauty, not that he would have panicked otherwise.

“N-Not at all. I was just surprised.”

“You’re a bit too old fashioned, Ageha,” said Kaika with a wry smile. “You were supposed to shake her hand.”

“Apologies.” Ageha closed his eyes and made a shallow bow.

“Please raise your head, Mr. Shikimi!” Jamie stepped forward and touched his elbow.

Upon straightening himself, Ageha noticed two ladies behind Jamie. Kaika released a quiet sigh before introducing them to him as well. As if undergoing mitosis, the ladies in front of Ageha multiplied. Most of them did not look over twenty. He was a little relieved they came in numbers, allowing him to avoid shaking their hands and possibly revealing his cybernetics, but he also felt sorry for Kaika, who was hard pressed introducing each of them in turn.

After basic pleasantries finished, Jamie stepped forward, facing Ageha with an earnest albeit anxious expression. “M-May I have this dance?”

Based on their expectant looks, the other ladies probably had the same thing in mind. Ageha did not dislike female company, and Kaika had taught him it was rude to decline dance invitations, but before he could reply, he noticed Saya from the corner of his eye. Despite being in the middle of a dance, she managed to shoot him a sharp and cold look. It felt like a throwing knife stabbing into his chest, almost making him forget that a real one would do nothing to his alloy body.

Talk about unfair.

But no matter how much he wanted it to be different, life was unfair. He was a mere chef and could decline dances without consequence, unlike Saya, who often served as Kaika’s representative. The weights of their refusals were incomparable.

That did not mean he seriously wanted to accept their dance invitations. He simply wished Saya was free to decline hers. But there was nothing he could do about that. Focusing on what he could do, he decided to drive the ladies away to avoid his lover’s wrath.

“Apologies. I’m afraid I’m not skilled enough to be your partner. Being a chef, I’m usually on the service side of these events, not a guest.”

The ladies excitedly whispered among themselves.

“What a bad boy!”

“How refreshing!”

Jamie shook her head. “No worries. We can just chat instead.” She smiled brightly, displaying her perfect, probably cosmetically altered, teeth. “So, what does a personal chef do exactly?”

His type was apparently popular with uptown girls.

He considered asking Kaika for help, but after considering the teasing that would follow, he opted to handle it himself in the end.

After about fifteen minutes spent chatting with them, the ladies were picked off one at a time by men inviting them to the dance floor. Even Jamie was taken away by her father to meet people.

“Liar,” said Kaika. “I spent all that time teaching you to dance yet you claim you can’t. What’s up with that?”

“I learned that for a specific person.”

“Again with the bragging.”

“You literally asked for it.”

Kaika shrugged. “You handled that surprisingly well. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“What, entertaining rich women?”

“…You make it sound so vulgar, but yeah.”

“Before I became a chef at Sapore, Chef Kirishima had me work a few weeks as a server to better understand the front of the house. No better way to get good at something like this.”

Kaika narrowed her eyes, as if relishing that piece of information. “The song’s about to end. You better hurry and grab Saya before another guy butts in. Don’t waste my expert teaching by hugging the walls like this. It’d be a bit rude to those you rejected before, but that’ll probably just enhance your bad boy image and make you more popular.”

Saya finished up the dance with a tall red-haired young man in a navy blue nehru jacket. All her other suitors had already gone, leaving them alone. After gifting him an impeccable smile, Saya began walking towards Kaika and Ageha. However, the redhead stepped in front of her, cutting off her path.

Kaika frowned. “What a persistent fellow.”

“It’s not like I don’t understand the feeling.”

With a roll of her eyes, she snorted. “Yeah, whatever.”

Saya, keeping a smile on, tried to convince the young man to let her go. Though a bit far off, Ageha began to pick up on the man’s words, meaning he had raised his voice far higher than what was normally appropriate for the occasion. The smile vanished from Saya’s face, but the redhead continued to block her way while arrogantly pointing at his chest.

“Be prudent,” said Kaika.

Controlling his urge to march over to Saya, Ageha whispered, “…I know.”

Then the man forcefully grabbed Saya’s left arm.

 

***

 

Kaika felt relieved that the redhead took hold of Saya’s human arm. Judging from how strongly he held her, he would instantly notice the abnormality had he grabbed the alloy one. However, she soon recalled that was the least of her worries.

“I know how you feel,” said Kaika as she turned to Ageha, “but Saya can handle herse-”

He was no longer there.

She clicked her tongue. “I hate it when he does that.”

Knowing his destination, Kaika quickly found Ageha weaving his way through the crowd of people on the dance floor. She rushed to follow him to prevent things from escalating. Her size proved to be an advantage, allowing her to slip between groups of people and gradually catch up to him. That changed when the persistent redhead tried to drag Saya away from the dance floor. Ageha stopped caring about shoving aside VIPs and raced towards them. Realizing she would not catch Ageha, Kaika began thinking of countermeasures.

How am I gonna smooth this over?

Continuing to weave through the crowd, Kaika quickly cycled through the faces of the invited guests in her head, trying to recall who the redhead was. A peaceful resolution would greatly depend on his status.

Just don’t kill anyone please.

A few more steps and Ageha would be in range to tear off the redhead’s arm from Saya. Kaika could only hope he would not do it literally. Ageha reached out, but a young woman got in his way. To be more accurate, she grabbed the redhead first, inadvertently blocking Ageha’s path.

The woman kept a firm grip on his forearm. Straight black hair sloped down her tanned shoulders. Her rather skimpy teal dress, cut well above her knees, brought out the appeal of her bronze complexion and flawless proportions. She glared at the redhead with a fierce expression. “That isn’t how you treat a lady.”

The young man turned his attention to her. “Who the hell are you? And what do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m Mashiro Oogi. As for the second question, I’ll ask you the same thing.” Despite her Japanese name and appearance, she spoke in fluent English. She was half a foot shorter than him, but her aura felt much more intimidating.

Saya looked perplexed by the sudden development. Kaika was certain Saya had it under control, but surely this turn of events was unexpected for both of them. Ageha stood a few feet behind Mashiro, and Kaika stopped beside him.

The redhead looked at the hand restraining him. “Let go of me.”

“If you let go of her first.”

He released Saya’s arm, and Mashiro unshackled his in return. He straightened out his sleeve and glared at Mashiro.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Who cares? Apologize to her.” Mashiro motioned to Saya with her hand.

“You must be some bumpkin if you don’t recognize me.”

“Didn’t you hear me? Apologize.” Mashiro’s glare grew fiercer, causing the young man to flare up in response.

“Mind your own business!”

A small crowd began forming around the commotion. Kaika signaled to Saya with her eyes.

“Ms. Oogi, I am fine,” said Saya in an attempt to douse the flames. “There is no need for apologies.”

“Fine!?” Mashiro shifted her basilisk gaze to Saya. “Your arm is red where he grabbed you. How can you let that slide? You deserve an apology, and this brute needs to be taught some manners.”

Saya looked at her sore left arm, apparently not noticing the damage from earlier. “No, really, this is nothing-”

“Brute..?” said the redhead, his clenched fists trembling in anger. “You called me, Donald Mitchell, a brute?”

Mitchell?

Kaika recognized the name. His family owned a large automobile corporation, quite powerful but nowhere near NGC’s caliber. That said, making enemies needlessly was unwise, especially in the current stage of her plan.

But who’s this Oogi?

Kaika did not recognize her surname. At least, she was not in the guest list for the party.

With a tilt of her head, Mashiro’s severe gaze softened into one of innocent curiosity. “Why do you keep asking stupid questions?”

Donald threw a punch towards her face. Even Kaika could tell it was an amateurish attack, something her two melee experts could stop with their eyes closed. Contrary to her expectations, Saya did not move to protect Mashiro. Ageha stepped forward but did not take action in the end. They did not need to.

“Please refrain from violence,” said a young man with tanned skin similar to Mashiro’s. He had caught Donald’s punch from the side.

“You’re late, Makoto.” Mashiro breathed out a tiny sigh.

“You told me to get you a drink, then you disappear. I wouldn’t’ve been able to find you if it weren’t for this ruckus.” He held a glass of wine in his free hand, which he promptly handed to Mashiro. Spiky black hair, sharp eyes, and a small scar on his right eyebrow gave him a wild look, but he handled himself with trained elegance.

Donald tried to shake off his grip but failed. “Let me go, you bastard!”

Makoto immediately released him. Suddenly losing resistance, Donald almost stumbled backward. Before he could resume his frenzy, Kaika decided to step in.

“Mr. Mitchell, Ms. Oogi, out of consideration for the other guests, I would like to request that you continue this discussion another time.” Kaika lowered her head in a Japanese bow, intentionally choosing a foreign form of apology to emphasize sincerity. “As one of the hosts, I apologize for any inconvenience you have encountered during this party.”

Noticing the growing crowd around them, Donald composed himself, but the fury in his eyes did not waver. “Fine. We’ll settle this another time.” He scowled at Mashiro and Makoto one final time before turning to Kaika. “Ms. Nikaido, please be more careful who you invite to your party next time.”

You got that right, bucko.

“Certainly.”

“I’m no longer in the mood for this. I’m leaving.” As if escaping the thorny stares, Donald promptly left the hall, followed by several men in black suits.

Saya approached Mashiro and performed a perfect bow. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“Don’t mention it.” Mashiro smiled. “I just did the right thing.”

“Please be more careful next time, Mashiro.” Makoto heaved a sigh. “I can’t always be around to protect you.”

“Isn’t that your job?”

“You certainly never make it easy.”

“You were late. He almost hit me.”

“Like I said, that was your fault for disappearing on me. Besides, the gentleman over there would’ve taken care of it anyway.” Makoto glanced at Ageha.

“Is that so?” Mashiro followed his gaze and ended up facing Ageha. “Then I owe you my thanks.”

Ageha shook his head. “I didn’t do anything.”

“But you moved in order to help me, right? I also noticed you stepping forward earlier. A righteous act deserves gratitude.”

“No, I-”

“No need to be modest,” said Makoto. “I can tell from your movements and build. If I weren’t closer, you would’ve stopped that jerk first. Easily too.”

From a martial artist’s eyes, Ageha’s body appeared to be optimized for combat, but that was only natural. It was literally built for that purpose.

Max popped out from the crowd and rushed to them. “Kaika, are you okay!?”

“Yes, it was just a minor squabble. Nothing to worry about.”

“That’s great.” Max’s shoulders relaxed for a moment before perking up again. “Shiro-senpai..?”

Mashiro made a nostalgic smile. “Seems you haven’t grown out of using that weird name.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Father couldn’t make it, so he sent me as a representative.”

“I see. I didn’t think you’d come because Mom handled the invitations. Nothing against your father, but I’m glad you’re here. It’s great to see you, Shiro-senpai.”

Shiro-senpai?

“Max, I didn’t know you could speak Japanese,” said Kaika.

“Huh? I can’t.”

Mashiro cut in. “‘Senpai’ is probably the only Japanese word he knows.” She giggled before continuing. “He was my junior in university.”

“She was in graduate studies while I was an undergrad. She was the assistant professor in some of the politics classes I took. Our parents are old friends, so we’ve actually met a few times before that. I had a bit of trouble adjusting to the class material at first. She really helped me out back then.”

Kaika slightly widened her eyes. “What a coincidence. So you still see each other in school?”

“No, she left university spring this year. She’s just two years older than I am, but she kept skipping grades until she graduated. It was as if she didn’t want to be on the same campus as me.”

Mashiro made a teasing grin. “You were quite embarrassing to be with.”

“No way!?”

They both laughed.

“Looks like introductions are in order,” said Kaika. “I’m sure everyone already knows me but I’ll go first anyway. I’m Kaika Nikaido, NGC CEO and Max’s fiance.” Kaika glanced at her lover, confirming his happy smile, before gesturing towards Saya and then Ageha. “This is Saya Saionji, my chief of staff, and Ageha Shikimi, my personal chef.”

Max nodded at each of them and began his own set of introductions. “I’m Maxwell Garvey, Senator Rachel Garvey’s son, and this is Mashiro Butler, Secretary Butler’s daughter.”

The US secretary of defense!?

It was typical in such events for successors to include their parents’ names in their introductions as a status symbol, but Kaika did not expect the tanned Japanese woman to be Secretary Curtis Butler’s daughter.

“How many times have I told you it’s ‘Oogi,’ not ‘Butler,’” said Mashiro.

“You still haven’t taken his name?”

“I like my family name.” Mashiro casually put a hand on Makoto’s shoulder. “This is Makoto Kaburagi, my childhood friend.”

“You mean your assistant and bodyguard, Ms. Butler.”

Mashiro jabbed him in the shoulder with a miffed smile. They looked really close, like siblings.

“How’s it going, Makoto?” asked Max.

“Everything is fine, Mr. Garvey,” he replied without making eye contact. His tone was stiff and unfriendly, a complete turnaround from his conversation with Mashiro.

“How cold. Still wary of me? Senpai is just my senpai, you know? And I’m engaged now. I’m not gonna take her away from you.”

“Wha-” Makoto’s lips flapped wordlessly. A bead of sweat raced down his temple.

“Speaking of which, I was shocked when I heard the news,” said Mashiro. “Aren’t you a little young to get engaged? You just turned twenty, right?”

Kaika puckered her lips while scrunching her eyebrows. “What’s wrong with that? I’m sixteen and no one’s complaining.”

Of course, her jealousy was a sham, but it was a good chance to show Max a different side of her, increasing her appeal. According to the child hunter Valeriya, one could never raise too many flags for one target, and Max was very much a child.

“Now, now.” Max tapped Kaika’s shoulder while keeping his eyes on Mashiro. “It was a bit tough convincing Mom, but the moment I met Kaika, I knew she was the one.”

Ageha and Saya rolled their eyes simultaneously.

Hey!?

She appreciated that they kept quiet and let her take the reins of the conversation, but even she took damage from such cheesy comments. They did not have to add insult to injury. Considering how often she had to endure the loving couple’s flirting, she had the right to demand more lenience from them.

“Sorry for talking among ourselves,” said Max. “Mr. Shikimi, how are you enjoying the party? I’d very much like to hear your comments about the food as a chef.”

“I’ve only tried a few items. It’s not bad.”

I agree, but be a bit more tactful dammit!

“Not bad, huh…” Max rubbed his chin while looking down. Even such a simple gesture looked attractive with his dashing features. “We had to change caterers at the last minute because of a schedule conflict. I guess that brought down the quality.”

Without anyone noticing, Kaika jabbed Ageha’s waist with her elbow.

“But I’m sure that’s because I haven’t tried enough items,” said Ageha. “When preparing the menu for events like these, the overall theme and effect is very important. I’m sure I have yet to see the grand picture the head chef is trying to paint. I can definitely see signs of something exquisite from what I’ve tasted so far.”

“How insightful.” Max nodded twice. “A chef’s opinion really is something else.”

Good job!

The follow up sounded fabricated as hell, but it was better than nothing. In high society, the pretense of propriety took precedence over intangible intention.

I better wrap this up.

And Ageha deserves a reward for going along with this.

Knowing him, he would not tolerate Saya’s harassment or lying about food in normal circumstances, and doing so had likely exhausted the entirety of his patience.

“Max.” Kaika lightly tugged at Max’s suit. Their height difference meant she unavoidably looked up at him. “Are you done going around?”

“Actually, I still-”

“Max,” said Mashiro. “You should listen more carefully to a lady’s words.”

A look of realization appeared on his face. “Right. Thanks, Shiro-senpai.” He extended his hand towards Kaika. “May I have this dance?”

With a manufactured blush on her cheeks, Kaika smiled and placed her hand in his. “You may.”

Kaika recalled Ageha’s “death” and used the embarrassment from that time in her act. It was always easier to blush intentionally than to prevent it from happening. Shame was not the easiest emotion to stifle.

The engagement with Max was something triggered by Saya’s jealous outburst a few months ago, but that did not prevent Kaika from enjoying her role at the moment.

“If you’ll excuse us.” Max nodded to the others before leading Kaika away from them.

 

***

 

Saya watched her mistress trot away beside the Senator’s son.

What is she thinking?

Saya could roughly guess Kaika’s intentions for getting engaged with Max. He was Senator Rachel Garvey’s son, and that woman, despite her fearsome reputation in her military days, was known to dote on the boy. But there were other ways to increase her influence in the US government that did not involve selling herself like this.

Could it really be because of that?

Saya recalled her outburst. In a jealous fit, she had blamed Kaika for Kureha’s death and even blackmailed her into keeping quiet about Saya’s involvement in Zhang’s assassination.

But if that was the case…

Then she’s doing this because of a misunderstanding.

“Are you done going around?” said a voice beside her, shaking her out of contemplation.

It was the voice of the man she loved more than herself.

“You’re not a lady, you know? You should be a little more straightforward.”

“But you still understood.” He took her hand in his fingers. “May I have this dance?”

“You should get permission before taking a lady’s hand.”

“Blame Kai. She was my teacher.” Ageha gently caressed the red marks on her arm with a pained expression. He definitely knew she bruised easily and these would leave black marks. That much was obvious from their nights together.

She brushed his arm with her left hand, gently pushing it downward as if to appease it. “Impossible. Ojousama’s teaching is immaculate. It’s your fault for not learning.”

“You have her back even now, huh? I don’t get you sisters.”

Sisters.

That’s what we are right..?

Ojousama?

Leaving her tangled thoughts behind, Saya allowed herself to be whisked off to the dance floor.

 

***

 

After the others had gone off to dance, Makoto gulped down twice and gathered his courage. He wiped his hands on his black slacks and extended one to her employer. “M-Mashiro, since we’re here and all, h-how about a dance?”

“Nah, I think I’ll hit the buffet tables.” Mashiro marched away.

Her deflated bodyguard-cum-childhood friend had no choice but to follow.

 

Next Chapter

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5 thoughts on “Chapter One: Engagement

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