I blinked. “Akane?”
The Japanese girl stepped through the ‘sarian checkpoint, waving a badge to the guard, with a surprised look on her face. “Seena?” The beads in her hair clicked as she put the badge back in her pocket. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same! What were you doing in NHQ?”
She rolled her eyes. “Had to visit my mother.” She guided me by the arm a little bit farther away from the checkpoint, although whether it was because she didn’t like talking in front of a guard or just to make sure we didn’t obstruct traffic, I didn’t know. “Your turn. You don’t know anyone in there except me and Derek.”
“Actually, I was just walking over to…” I frowned. “Wait, have you been crying?”
Her beads clicked as she wiped her face hurriedly. “What? No, of course not.”
“Yes you have! What’s wrong?”
She sniffled a little. “Nothing. Nothing. Just…” she shook her head. “My mother’s being…”
Ah. Right. Akane had been forced to take a lot of crap for her commitment to her father’s ideals. I’ll admit I wasn’t always as supportive as I could be, but I wasn’t her mother.
I grabbed her arm. “How about we get ice cream? My treat. As an apology for missing your party.”
She adjusted her backpack. “You already got me that anime, you don’t have to—”
I waved my free hand. “Don’t be silly. That was just your present. You were gonna get it anyway. This is something else.”
The swordswoman frowned. “I…I have a bit of homework…”
I rolled my eyes and started tugging her away from NHQ, towards a place I knew a few blocks away. “Nine hells, girl, it’s just ice cream. It will make you feel better, and it will only take an hour, tops.”
She sighed. “Fine, fine.”
I smiled. “You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”
We walked in silence until we reached the ice cream parlor, sat down, and ordered.
“This is a really nice place,” Akane noted a little uncomfortably once the waiter left. She was right, of course. The entire ‘scraper was a high-class restaurant, with the first five floors dedicated to seating, and the rest catering to that. But at this hour, we weren’t dealing with the dinner crowds that normally filled the place, so it was just us and a few other groups scattered around. The downside was that service was slow, since there was only one waiter.
“It’s fine, really,” I insisted. “It’s not that expensive, especially the dessert. Besides, I have the cash to spare.”
She dropped her backpack to the floor and then carefully laid her sword-bag, open-end within easy reach. “Your job with the Mals has been going well?”
I grinned. “Yeah, really well.”
“Really,” she said flatly. She put her elbows on the table, rested her chin on her hands, and looked at me skeptically. “I find that hard to believe.”
I didn’t know whether to be insulted or not. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re unarmed,” she noted.
I chuckled. “Do you think it matters how the target is killed? There are other methods besides direct combat.”
“Hm,” she murmured, unconvinced. “The Mals are all about the violent kind of assassination. Climbing up the side of a building, slipping through the window, and killing everyone between them and their target is more their style than sending a seductress with murder on her mind.”
I tried not to let my anxiety show. “Guess which one killed Baal?”
“The former,” she responded instantly. “Don’t try and trick me with half-truths, Seena. Derek’s been researching this since the second you mentioned you joined up. I probably know more about the Mals than you do.” Her eyes narrowed. “So what, exactly, is going on?”
I rubbed my forehead. Well, at least I got her mind off her mother. “It’s…complicated, Akane.”
“I have eight hours until my next class.”
I sighed deeply. “Okay…okay. I’m not actually being trained as an assassin.”
I frowned. “Akane, don’t interrupt. This is important.”
Her expression became serious again, and she nodded.
I rubbed my forehead. “The truth is…I’m a babysitter.”
Akane’s gaze had become wooden. “What.”
“After Baal was killed, the Generals realized something needed to be done,” I explained. “The Mals have never been that big, and without him around…” I shrugged. “Well, you know how it is. Experts predicted a year, two at the most, before the subculture imploded.”
“See, that’s just it,” I insisted, getting into it now. “They’re planning for the future. The current Mals are bringing in their children to Maladomini, where me and a few other girls take care of them, teach them, and so on.”
For a few minutes, she didn’t say anything. She just stared at me in silence, forcing me to wonder whether telling her had been a good idea after all.
“Seena Amethyst Lancaster,” she started slowly. “I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. I want to assume you know better than to…” she closed her eyes, steeling herself, before continuing. “…than to aid in some sort of brainwashing scheme.” Her eyes snapped open again. “But I have to ask: Do you know exactly what you’ve gotten yourself into?”
I think it was the most I had ever heard her say at once. I twiddled with my hair a little to have an excuse for not responding.
The fact was, I didn’t know. I was being literal when I said I was the babysitter. I had always been good with babies, and there weren’t that many to take care of, so I did a good job. Besides, its not like I was completely alone.
But if there was any brainwashing going on, it was with the older kids, who I didn’t have access to. Well, that made it sound more nefarious than it really was. I wasn’t in charge of teaching them and didn’t have the spare time to sit in on one of their classes, but its not like I was barred from seeing them.
“I don’t know everything I should,” I admitted. “But I’ll look into a little, all right?” I reached over and squeezed her hand. She flinched a little, but only a little. “The Generals are just trying to keep it from falling apart. I’m sure there’s nothing…” I waved my hand. “Nefarious.”
“What’s nefarious?” Lizzy asked, as she slid into the seat next to me, holding a bowl of ice cream.
I blinked. “What are you doing here?” Glancing at Akane confirmed that she was as surprised as I was. She clearly hadn’t invited her.
She ate a bite. “Using my vast array of spies and informants I was able to track you from your secret lair, where I have cornered you here, for the perfect ambush.” Seeing our stares, she grinned. “My manager saw you two leaving NHQ,” she explained. “I was in the area, and I knew you like this place, so…”
“Speaking of nefarious purposes…” I muttered. “I know you mean well, sweetie, but I really don’t like thinking about that dirty old demon following me around.”
“Graz’zt isn’t following anyone,” she said with a frown. “And he’s not dirty!”
“Really,” Akane deadpanned. “What about the hentai he had you voice?”
She dug into her ice cream angrily. “Sore wa hijō—”
“English, Lizzy,” I reminded her. “Please.”
She sighed. “Fine. That was one very small role in one very tasteful romance that just so happened to follow people into the bedroom. I’m proud of my part in it.”
“Uh-huh,” I muttered. “Well, you’ll understand if I don’t invite him to my birthday.”
The golden girl gave me a bewildered look. “Why would you invite him to your birthday?”
“I wouldn’t—I mean…” I sighed. “Nevermind. Don’t worry about it.”
The waiter came back with our ice cream, and Lizzy tapped the side of her bowl with her spoon in contemplation as we ate. “The next birthday is…Derek’s, right? On the twenty-ninth?”
Akane nodded. “Three weeks, three days.”
“And then the Highlander is October twenty-seventh.”
I stared at her. “Highlander?”
Lizzy grinned. “Yeah, Laura! You see, her family is from Cantabria, a mountainous part of Spain—”
I waved my spoon to stop her. “No, no, that’s all right. I don’t need an explanation for every silly nickname you give out.”
At least Akane wasn’t crying.
Behind the Scenes (scene 43)
This came out…all right. Could have been better.