– II –
I returned to my bed…no, to Ronin Kassius’s bed…kicked off my sandals, and then slipped under the covers.
After tapping the bedside lamp to turn it off, I lay in darkness, exhausted and hollow as I looked up at the indistinct ceiling.
And sometime later, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, slivers of morning light intruded into the room around the edges of the curtain drawn across the window wall that separated the enclosed balcony from the apartment.
Without needing to look at the clock on the bedside table, I knew the time was seven fifteen in the morning. That was thanks to Mirai’s wetware.
I wonder if I can use it like a daily planner?
Lying on my back, and this time regarding the grey ceiling above me, I realized that I’d never thought much about Mirai’s wetware beyond its capacity to interface with weaponry. I knew now that Ghost could use it to project himself into my senses, namely my hearing and vision, allowing him to interact with me on a more human. But what else could I do with it? That is, what other special talents did the wetware possess?
And what hidden talents did I possess?
Lifting an arm before me, I turned it over slowly and thought of the Angel Fibers running through my body.
Can I do more than sprout wings?
I dropped my arm down across my belly under the sheets, and noticed they were still neatly spread over me, indicating a distinct lack of tossing and turning.
I guess Mirai is a heavy sleeper.
Or maybe I was so tired that I literally slept like a log.
On the other hand, considering the twin peaks on my chest, I doubted Mirai could sleep on anything but her back, so other positions were not an option for her.
Shaking my head in annoyance at the aforementioned restrictions, I then began to wonder what the day held in store for me.
How long before Erina or the Cat Princess discovered I was here and broke down the door?
But what would come after that?
I could hear the faint sounds of movement out in the corridor beyond the apartment’s door, but that didn’t surprise me. This was the dormitory complex and there were always students who left early to head to the academy, whether for practice or other reasons. However, what did surprise me was the fact that I could hear them, something I had never experienced before from within my dorm apartment due to the soundproofing.
Just how far above normal was Mirai’s hearing?
At the thought, I cocked my head while resting it on the pillow, and listened to the sounds around me.
I could hear faint humming on different frequencies, and the sounds of a handful or more students traveling down the corridor, including their conversations.
Below that, I could also perceive activity in the apartment neighboring mine that was closest to the wall behind my bed.
Because I was so focused on the sounds around me, I sensed someone walk up to the door moments before they touched the door plate that triggered a soft sing chime consisting of seven notes.
My immediate reaction was to freeze in bed.
When the melody played through a second time, I turned my head to look at the door at the end of the hallway.
There was a short period of silence before the melody played through a third time.
By then I had run through the list of suspects who would have reason to be at the door.
I crossed Mat off the list since he was currently under observation – according to Erina.
Then there was Shirohime. I crossed her off even quicker.
Angela and Felicia were two suspects I considered but dismissed when I remembered only a day had passed since we’d returned. I didn’t believe they’d be given new Simulacra bodies to move around. On the other hand, if it was them in their human bodies at the door, this was one of the floors occupied by male students, so girls were very unlikely to visit this level unless they were visiting a boy they wished to accompany to school. Since it wasn’t uncommon, and Angela and Felicia were former friends of Ronin’s, perhaps it was a likely scenario.
As for Erina venturing into the apartment complex at this hour, it could be put down to a relative visiting a younger family member, though the time of day was odd.
Lastly, I considered the Cat Princess, and that distinct possibility made my heart skip several times before it regained its natural footing.
Subconsciously, I pulled the covers up to my chin. “…Ghost…?”
“Princess, if you are wondering who is at the door, I suggest you answer it.”
His reply made me frown fleetingly, and I asked, “Why aren’t you going to tell me?”
“Because, it would be far easier and more efficient for you to simply answer it.”
“That is totally not true,” I snapped at him while keeping my voice down. Climbing out of the bed, I padded barefoot down the hallway to the apartment’s door, but stopped halfway there. “Wait a minute….”
“Correct, Princess. It is someone who already knows who you are.”
I sighed heavily and my shoulders slumped as I leaned on a wall for support. “Why didn’t you just tell me it was her….”
Stepping up to the door, I tapped the console plate beside it, and looked at the image projected in a holovid bubble between me and the door.
It displayed the corridor area outside my apartment.
Expecting to see Erina standing there, I was instead shocked speechless by whom I saw.
The individual on the opposite side of the door range the chime melody again.
I looked down at the door plate, and seeing the red light displayed there, I knew the door was locked.
“Ghost…unlock it please….”
“As you wish, Princess.”
I heard the lock mechanism click softly, then reached down and turned the knob to open the door.
The girl with long auburn hair standing out in the corridor smiled languidly at me. “About time. I was beginning to think you were ignoring me.”
“…what are you doing here…?”
She held up a canvas sports bag. “I come bearing gifts.”
“…no, really, why are you here?”
The girl looked down the corridor, and I heard someone approaching. “A girl in a boy’s dorm room is a no-no.”
“You’re right.” I started closing the door. “You should go.”
However, she stuck her foot in the doorway and used a free hand to force the door back into me until I pushed against her, finding my strength equal to hers.
Damn it—she’s definitely a mechanical.
“You’re being predictable and boring,” the girl stated in a disinterested manner.
“No can do.”
The sounds of someone drawing near grew louder.
Yanking the door open, I reached out and pulled the girl into the apartment before quickly closing the door behind her.
Then I pushed her against a hallway wall, using my weight and strength to keep her there.
“Which one are you?” I asked.
“The wicked witch of the west,” she replied, smiling drily.
“Tabitha….” Pushing her once more, I backed away to the opposite wall of the hallway. “Or is it, Taura Hexaria?”
“Tabitha Hexen will do fine.”
I shook my head in faint displeasure. “How did you know I was here?”
Tabitha turned and then swayed as she walked down the hallway into the living area. “I like what you’ve done with the place.” She sleepily regarded my collection of Mercy Haddaway merchandise filling every able space of the apartment. “It’s the Temple of Mercy.”
I followed her into the living area, and repeated, “How did you know I was here?”
“Early this morning, we noticed tampering with this building’s security grid. Following the bread crumbs, we arrived here.” Tabitha turned to look at me over a shoulder. “It was easy to guess the intruder was you.”
“Who is we?”
She walked over to the bed and dropped the sports bag onto it. “I’ve been transferred to the Battle Commission’s Cardinal Division. My job is to observe you.”
“Cardinal? Like a church cardinal?”
Tabitha wandered around the room. “No, nothing like that. Cardinal is simply the division’s title.”
“So why are you watching me?”
“That’s a silly question.” She stopped and frowned at me. “Obviously, because the Empress has taken an interest in you. Though the Battle Commission is mostly independent of the Empress’s influence, she has graciously granted Cardinal additional authority to act in her name.”
“Why doesn’t she just kidnap me then?”
“Because your sister told her that any attempt to do so would result in your death.”
I frigid wind blew through me. “What…?”
“I meant to say destruction.”
Another frigid gust raced through me, constricting my lungs, and robbing me of my voice. However, Ghost had chosen to materialize in my vision, and I threw him a tense glance that he ignored as he regarded Tabitha with a complicated expression.
Unaware of Ghost’s scrutiny, Tabitha studied me for a short while before holding her palms up and shrugging apathetically. “Hey, that’s what she said.” Lowering her hands, she added, “The Empress decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Without the data on your body, there was no way to tell if Erina Kassius was lying, although you were scanned during the translocation process between islands.”
Suppressing a shiver, I swallowed hard before whispering, “Ghost?”
“…this is news to me,” he replied in a low monotone.
“Don’t lie to me,” I hissed under my breath and out of the side of my mouth.
“Princess, I am upholding my promise,” he answered without relaxing his expression.
Crossing my arms stiffly, I hid my unease by staring hard at Tabitha. “And? What did you find?”
“Nothing. No bomb. No capsules. Just the wetware in your head that we couldn’t scan deeply.” Tabitha studied a life-sized poster of Mercy I had up on a wall. “That was indeed surprising. The fact that Remnant tech is embedded in your head.”
“Why is that such a big deal?”
“Because Remnants are produced by Fabricators, and House Novis is not supposed to have one.”
“Why not? Aren’t the Sarcophagi Remnant tech as well? How else is House Novis supposed to make them?”
“The Sarcophagi are produced and allocated under the authority of the Battle Commission. And they don’t belong to the competing Houses. They are simply on loan to them.”
I bit my lower lip as I proverbially joined the dots. “Are you saying House Novis—the Sanreals—broke the rules?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Tabitha listlessly pouted at the image of Mercy on the wall. “Such big boobs….” Abruptly she turned that pout on me. “Speaking of boobs. I noticed you have quite the fulsome rack.”
“Does that really matter now?”
“Hmm. I wonder which of you is bigger?” Tabitha mused softly, alternating her attention between Mercy’s poster and I.
“Like I said, does it matter?”
“Of course it does,” she replied with surprising honesty but it was dampened by her drowsy voice. “Do you think you’re going to participate in the Gun Princess Royale solely as a competitor?” She shook her head and smiled weakly as though pitying me. “You have no idea what your sponsor has planned for you.”
I froze as a variety of dreadful possibilities paraded before my eyes.
Get a grip! She’s trying to unhinge you!
Forcibly relaxing, I rubbed a palm over my face as I attempted to follow my own advice. “Can you just tell me what’s going on?”
Tabitha pointed at the poster. “Hey, can I have this one?”
“No,” I immediately snapped.
“By the way, have you thought about dressing up like her?”
“Huh? No. No, I haven’t.”
Surprisingly, that was indeed the truth. But now that she’d asked the question, I couldn’t help wondering if I could pull off such a feat.
Aggggh! What the Hell am I thinking?
While chastising myself, I once again palmed my face, reminded myself to keep it together, then took a step closer to Tabitha. “Can we stay focused?”
“Poster.” She pointed at it. “Gimme.”
“Get your own. Ah—actually, that one was given out only to the first one hundred attendees at her handshaking event last year.”
That event was what started my nightmare as Princess Silver Blue. Giving in to temptation, I had accepted the Cosplay Club’s terms in exchange for a ticket to meet Mercy at a handshaking event.
Ah, but that’s a story already told.
Tabitha made a voice like that of a dirty old man. “How much for the girl? I want to buy the girl.”
“Cut that out. You’re sounding like a real creeper.”
She held up a finger. “The price of knowledge is one precious article from your collection.”
“Forget it,” I retorted.
Tabitha folded her hands behind her back and regarded me with disappointment. “So you really don’t want to know?”
“The price is too high.”
Besides, I could always ask Ghost to investigate for me.
However, my certainty was chipped away by doubts when I noticed him wearing a distinctly troubled expression.
“Princess, perhaps you should make the trade,” he suggested cautiously.
Wait—does that mean there’s something he doesn’t know about?
I tried not to gape at him in shock, and barely succeeded. However, I blurted out, “Heh?”, and immediately attracted Tabitha’s attention. “I mean—why do you want something from my collection?”
“To sell it and make money,” she replied perfunctorily.
“Limited edition posters of Mercy go for a steep price.”
“I’m not selling my Mercy poster. I even had it framed. That cost me money. So forget it. No way.”
Tabitha frowned at me. “Why are you so obsessed with this girl?”
“Because she’s a goddess!”
“I think you have your definition of a goddess messed up.”
I crossed my arms unhappily. “Look. I’m not giving you my poster.”
“House Novis is in deep shit.”
I jerked back, surprised by her blunt admission. “Ah…so what? Not my problem.”
“Actually, it is. You see, they had a Fabricator hidden away. The fact that none of the Fabricators are missing from the Imperial inventory means that they procured this Fabricator from elsewhere. Or they had an extra Fabricator no one else knew about, and didn’t return it after the war. In other words, it wasn’t stolen from the Empire. Regardless, the Empress is not amused. On top of that, it seems they were quite liberal with its use.”
“In what way?” I muttered.
“The design of your Sarcophagus.” Tabitha swayed drunkenly on her feet. “After claiming Mirai was never intended for the Gun Princess Royale, they certainly went to some extreme lengths to provide you with a very non-standard Sarcophagus. It may look regular on the outside, but the inside is a different kettle of fish.”
“So what?” I repeated. “I’m not a mechanical Princess. Wouldn’t it have to be different to support me?”
“True. But there are things about its design that House Novis is keeping close to the chest.”
“Okay. So they’re not playing ball with the Empress.”
Tabitha shook her head and exhaled wearily. “They’re being sneaky, sneaky.”
“Like I’ve said already, so what? The Sanreals gave me a non-regulation coffin. Big deal. Blame the Empress for pushing them that far. Aren’t they just looking out for their investment?” I indicated myself with a fingertip. “Me.”
“True. At least, that’s what they’re arguing.” She straightened and began pacing around the low coffee table that also served as a dinner table. “It’s all too complicated and boring for me.”
I watched her circle the table as though she were shackled to a ball and chain. “Are you responsible for the security system in this building?”
“Not me per se.”
“Then is the Battle Commission responsible?”
“Actually, no. The upgrade was conducted at the request of the building administration, and the building happens to be owned by the Telos Corporation. So it had nothing to do with us.”
The Sanreals controlled the Telos Corporation. Did that mean they were behind the upgrade to the building’s security?
I held back a frown as I continued watching Tabitha trudge her way around the low table. “Were you monitoring the building?”
“Yes, we were.”
I flinched and glanced sharply at Ghost who was now staring at Tabitha with veiled suspicion. Feeling uneasy myself, I swallowed to give myself a moment before asking the girl, “Just how far does the Commission’s influence spread through Ar Telica?”
“Very far,” she replied with a smirk that looked painfully exhausting. “Our Conquistador Class Awarenesses monitor all the city-states. We do it in a manner that doesn’t interfere with the existing infrastructure. We watch the watchers. What they see, we see, because we’re looking over their shoulders. But to be specific, we watch the interests of the competing institutions.”
“Anything and anyone related to the Gun Princess Royale—we keep an eye on them.”
Tabitha nodded and smiled as though on her last breath. “Precisely. Though you proved quite elusive last night.”
To me, it felt as though the temperature in the room had fallen.
To think that these people from another universe could assume such a superior position over our society.
Tabitha soldiered on. “So when the Conquistador monitoring various interests within Ar Telica noticed glitches in this building’s firewall, it began to pay close attention. After that, Cardinal was informed and they deployed someone on the ground to investigate.”
She stopped walking when she circled back to me.
Standing before me, the girl’s deep brown eyes met mine, and I was in danger of falling into a stupor just by looking at them.
“That would be me…,” Tabitha concluded.
I blinked sharply a couple of times before asking, “Why you?”
Tabitha looked subtly startled for a second, then her gaze swam around the apartment as she fell into thought. “Well…because we’re…friends?”
“You have to be kidding me….”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself!” I snapped and felt myself come back to life.
Tabitha shrugged her shoulders indifferently to my heated retort.
I palmed my face a third time, and took a couple of deep breaths, before asking, “You already knew it was me before I broke into the apartment. Correct?”
“No. We determined it was you after you broke into this apartment,” she explained dispassionately.
“But weren’t you watching the interior of the building?”
“You could say the wool was pulled down over our eyes. So it wasn’t possible to see who was interloping. But if you add one plus one, you get two. So it was easy to know who was in here.”
In the corner of my eye, I watched Ghost’s eyes narrow coldly at Tabitha.
I had a very good idea why.
Maestro versus Conquistador, I thought to myself. His pride has been wounded. Then I had another thought. I wonder who’s more powerful.
Shelving the question quickly, I slowly folded my arms under my breasts. “Why are you here? Tell me the real reason.”
“Cardinal has a proposition for you.”
“It does?” I cocked my head as I looked down at Tabitha. “Is it something the Empress put you up to?”
Tabitha lifted a fingertip to her lips and whispered in a detached tone, “I’m not supposed to say.”
Planting my hands on my hips, I regarded the girl with suspicion on my face. “Whatever. Let’s hear it.”
Tabitha sighed. “Nope. Not yet. Certainly not on an empty stomach.”
I stared at her, dressed as she was in a Telos Academy uniform. “What are you talking about? That body is a mechanical. So you don’t eat.”
Tabitha sighed again. “This body is more than just mechanical. Consider it the latest tech from the Pantheon Group. It’s special.”
Again, I stared at her from head to toes. “How special? Wait—the Pantheon Group? Isn’t that a huge military conglomerate?”
“The Pantheon Group is owned by House Aventisse.”
I gasped in shock. “The Empress’s family….”
Tabitha clapped half-hearted. “Bingo, Princess. As such, the Battle Commission occasionally gets equipment from the black technology divisions within the Pantheon Group. Even your military doesn’t have the tech we do. More to the point, we have tech they don’t know about.” Dressed in her uniform, Tabitha assumed a pose that faithfully copied that of Mercy in my framed wall poster, sans bikini. However, she looked so utterly bored it completely ruined the effect. “What do you think? Impressive, ne?”
How can she ask that while making such a face?
Nonetheless, I looked her over yet again. “Nice legs, but your boobs are too small.”
“Yes, well. The designers ignored my enhancement requests. But in answer to your question, I can enjoy food in this body, although it’s somewhat vicarious.”
“This isn’t the same type of body you used back in the match between the Gun Queen and I?”
“This is the covert operations model. Significantly more lifelike. And it doesn’t set off the security scanners when I pass through checkpoints.” She smiled lazily as she stepped up to me. “Squeeze my boobs.”
“What?” I darted back a step. “What are you saying?”
“Don’t you want to know how real they feel? You can compare them to the pair you have.”
Since I wasn’t a girl – merely a boy inside the body of a girl – I should not have reflexively crossed my arms protectively over my chest. But that’s exactly what I did, and having realized that, I dropped my arms in a hurry. “Knock it off. I’m not doing something like that. Mechanical or not, you’re still a girl. Show some modesty.”
“Geh. How dull,” she drawled like a windup toy on its last legs.
“Whatever,” I snapped.
Tabitha held up a finger. “Anyway, as I was saying. I can enjoy a good meal. So let’s have breakfast.”
I stared at her, not bothering to hide my unease. “Fine…but I have no money,” I lied.
“Not a problem. I’ll charge it as a business expense to Cardinal.” Tabitha pointed at the canvas sports bag she’d deposited on my bed. “But first, you should change.”
“What?” I glanced at the bag. “Why?”
“Because there’s a uniform in there.”
Now I edged away from the bag as though it contained a bomb. “A uniform.”
“A Telos Academy uniform.”
I retreated another step from the bag and bed. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“If you put it on, I’ll let in on a secret or two over breakfast.”
“I’m not wearing a uniform.”
“You’ll have to eventually. I understand that you’ve been enrolled at Telos Academy and will be starting on Monday.”
I flinched at being reminded of my impending fate.
She knows about that? Just how much do they know about me?
Tabitha pressed in a mercilessly exhausted manner. “Therefore, you might as well give the uniform a test run.”
“Not a chance.”
A faint spark of life flickered in the girl’s eyes, and I suddenly felt truly uneasy. However, I continued to protest. “There is no way I’m wearing a girl’s uniform. Besides, I’ve been there and done it already.”
“Ah yes. During your stint cosplaying as the female Ronin Kassius.”
“I wasn’t cosplaying—okay, maybe I was.”
Tabitha sighed and then slumped as though she’d expended a month’s worth of energy. “I knew it would come to this.”
She slipped a hand into a dress pocket and retrieved a white slip of paper with black printing that suspiciously resembled a concert ticket.
“Maybe this will change your mind,” she declared wearily and held up the ticket for me to see. “Do you know what this is?”
“A concert ticket?”
“Dinner with Mercy Haddaway as part of a charity promotion she’s organized.”
I stumbled back and collided with a bookshelf replete with Mercy Haddaway merchandise. “No. No way. You’re lying….”
Tabitha stalked me, and waved the ticket sluggishly before my eyes. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you.”
She didn’t express it like a question because she could already see the answer written on my face.
I did indeed know what that ticket was all about. How could I not? After all, I was Mercy’s self ascribed number one fan.
The story behind that ticket was that people who donated X amount to a charity of Mercy Haddaway’s choice would earn the privilege of a romantic dinner for two with the goddess.
There were only five such dinner events on offer, and the five highest donations would win.
When I read about it on her blog page, I felt the gap between her and me widen to span the star system. The dream of eating dinner with the woman of my dreams was simply that – a dream. And yet here was Tabitha tempting me with a ticket I never believed I would see in my entire life. It was so close to my face that I stared at it cross-eyed.
“You are getting sleepy. Sleepy,” she droned slothfully.
“Very sleepy. Your eyes are getting heavy—”
“How—how did you get that ticket?”
“Oh, about that.” Tabitha stopped moving the ticket about. “Cardinal’s Maestro Awareness ran simulations on how best to coerce you into cooperating with us. It decided that Mercy Haddaway was the answer to many problems. So, using the funds allocated to the division for special circumstances, we made a sizeable donation to Mercy’s favorite charity and scored ourselves a ticket in the name of Isabel val Sanreal.” She resumed waving the slip of printed paper in her hand. “This ticket.”
They made the donation in my name? Ah, so they knew my fate in advance. Yeah, of course they did.
I was troubled by that realization, but it wasn’t enough to draw my attention away from the ticket. Seeing double, I struggled to swallow before muttering, “That’s not fair.”
“I have it on good authority that Mercy will be wearing a slinky red number designed by Dolce Gambatta. Guaranteed to expose her soft, luscious curves.”
Hearing Tabitha describe Mercy’s figure as such while sounding half asleep was almost a crime committed upon my goddess.
But rather than express outrage, I shook my head and pressed back into the bookshelf. “No—no way. That’s—that’s too much!”
Tabitha pressed home her advantage. “Think about it. Dinner for two with the girl of your dreams.”
I had trouble swallowing and almost choked. “Dinner…for two….”
Tabitha drew back the ticket a few inches from my face. “And all you have to do is wear the uniform…and hear us out.”
For a racing heartbeat, my attention jumped to the bag lying on my bed before immediately returning to the ticket.
Then I made my fateful decision.
Faster than a cobra could strike, my right arm slashed the air as my hand reached up to steal the ticket from Tabitha.
Fortunately, I moved faster than she could register.
Unfortunately, the ticket tore in two when I snatched it from her fingertips.
That morning, a loud, feminine scream was unexpectedly heard piercing the soundproofed walls of a boy’s apartment on the thirty-fifth floor of a towering residential complex with lovely views of Ar Telica city.
Thank you for hanging in there. I know it's tough, so I applaud you, and sincerely thank you.
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