It's a long climb, but she knew it wouldn't be long until she's transferred to the actual area. However, what greeted her upon reaching the end was a piece of paper.
Before proceeding, please remove any items that you deem unnecessary. These items will be sent to your Concierge.
After thinking for a minute, she surrendered the coin pouch and left everything else intact. Von wouldn't like it if my mask returned to him, she thought. Protect yourself, he always used to say.
Milleia tapped confirm. After a short while, an attendant with a mask bearing a character for ‘pure’ appeared.
“Merchandise Milleia, you are hereby granted access to the Tower for the entrance ceremony. This is your attempt number ‘one’. You have ‘one’ attempt(s) remaining. Please wait for a short while as your physical body is being transferred to the Tower.”
“Can I ask some questions?”
“Yes, but remember certain strings cannot be interpreted. In such events, the question is unanswerable by us.”
Milleia expected the condition. She wasn't planning anything anyway. “How many are participating this time?”
The attendant froze. “Approximately, there are ‘Seventy thousand’ participants this time. Today is the last day of the three-day registration so results are closer to the current actual figure.”
“That's a little underwhelming. Are the Elites included in the tally?”
“No. The Elite caste's Merchandise have undergone the entrance ceremony. Only ‘one thousand’ participants remain.”
Makes sense, she thought. The Fair would be a mess if there's a hundred thousand people being evaluated. “What are the criteria for judging?”
“Answer unknown. Please input another string.”
“Alright, how about…”
Milleia asked some more questions, trying what she might learn from the Fair or its entrance ceremony. The decennial event occurred when she and Blank were only eight years old and since both were still busy learning how to survive, anything about it were left for later. Even after years of working at the Elite layer, information pertain to the event was expensive, not to mention the products Blank bought for her. Any Qu Co item was of the finest quality, but quality and price were linearly dependent. In the end, with what she made plus Blank's multiple odd jobs, the only thing she could do was pretty herself up.
Upon the receptionist's notice, she got disconnected to the virtual Tower and fell into a deep sleep. Whatever happened when she woke up later would be up to her.
I will become Madonna.
The girl led Blank to somewhere the drone couldn't see them. She seemed to be quite laid back; the bells on her anklets ringing with every step.
Just when Blank was about to ask where they're going, she suddenly turned around. Bringing her face close to his mask she might as well be kissing it, she then whispered, in a very inviting tone, “Hey, your Merchandise is out there, right? Wanna… loosen up a little?”
Blank pinched her nose. “Sorry, but catgirls aren't my type.”
“Playing hard to get, nyaa~,” She giggled. “I thought my little kitten finally grew a pair. It seems I still haven't taught you two everything there is, tsk tsk tsk.”
“Regarding that, I actually wanted to learn how to defend myself better. So please teach me, Master Lian Mao!”
Mao was dumbfounded seeing Blank kowtow to her. “Nyani?”
“I'm begging you!”
Sensing he's being serious; Mao threw a dagger to Blank which he caught effortlessly. “I'm done with that department, yeah?”
“Oh~ so you're saying I'm no good for a teacher? Makes sense. I don't even think you were Red and Blue's son… even now. Are you even the same kitten I raised when all you got to show for yourself was that stupid mask?”
“Your provocations aren't gonna cut it anymore, master.”
Mao held her hand and looked at it. Her nails retracted when she relaxed her muscles. “Nothing coming from me would satisfy you anymore, Von. I heard you've raised Mimi to be viable at the Commoner layer. That speak volumes on how far you've come, both of you.”
Lian Mao. The one who taught them that being sentimental shouldn't be shown unless it's to someone you fully trust, showed vulnerability to him.
“In any case, I'm the one searching for you so it follows I be in charge,” She licked her lips, delighted at Blank's obedience. Mimi trained him well.
“The Nil gang was no more.”
“Nyaa, with all the chaos that big bad does, the gangs surely had been scared shitless. It's about time I do my part on this, ne~ Von?”
Something only rejects can do, he remembered her muttering something along that line once. Later on, when he did some investigations… which Mao also caught wind of, she decided to tell him of the fate of those who weren't fit to be Merchandise—to participate in the Fair.
“It's because of these damned slanted eyes, or not,” she said. Apparently, her Concierge, a family member she didn't elaborate, was so desperate to come up with something unique to increase her beauty. Makeup and nutrition could only go so far when one's structure was bad from the start. For her, the last resort would be surgery.
Obviously, one cut would greatly reduce her beauty. The one appraising her was no mere mortal, and the slightest defect would be noticed no matter how tiny, how insignificant. If the Fair was a means to elect the next Madonna, then it's common sense he or she must be perfect, if not more perfect, than the current one. It had been sixty years since the reign of the last Madonna that word of his or her deeds were long gone now.
Mao recounted her past as if revisiting old wounds. Surely it had healed up, but the scars remained. For an ex-Merchandise like her, there's no greater shame.
“At least the surgery succeeded,” she said. “I became the first ever human to be infused with animal gene and survive. Might as well be the last, nyaa~”
There were two types of people around here: the Concierges who sacrifice everything in order to produce the most perfect human ever—the Merchandise. The latter's task was to be perfect be it academics, athletics, etiquette, or martial arts, everything a person could learn they must learn and hone to perfection. No Merchandise was allowed a shortcoming; being second best was akin to not being any good at all.
For the stakes to be that high, surely the reward must be of equal value. Yes, aside from ascension to the caste, the Concierge who raised the next Madonna would go down in history, living their days in luxury, never to experience anything bad again.
However, those striving to become flawless had one fear… to be branded as a ‘reject’. Blank knew it also affected the Concierge. What would that make someone incapable of taking care of their wares? If slavery was an option for Commoners then perhaps one might discard faulty Merchandise and find a better replacement. Unfortunately, the pairings were final and made from birth—unless some special conditions were met, the two would be inseparable with both entrusting their lives to the other.
Mao haven't spoken anything regarding her past anymore saying she's obligated due to Blank being Red and Blue's offspring, and that she'd never experience childbirth anymore that's why she's hoping for someone to at least remember her tragedy. A story of a failed dream.
“Get down, now!”
Ping! Pingg! Ping!
Three shots aimed straight for Mao's head barely missed their mark.
She grinned from ear to ear. “They took my advice and really hired someone better,” She grabbed Blank and started running. “Let's go!”
They ran weaving through the crowd to avoid getting taken down by the sniper. It's hard to go against the flow of people going to the entrance ceremony. Nevertheless, they managed to get out of the area and catch their breaths for the time being.
“Tired already? Disappointing.”
“Well… if you've been dragged into a mess you have no idea…” Blank tried rebutting between pants.
“Hahahaha! You've been helping on this little errand and now you complain?”
She grabbed something from her back. The space around it began bending and blurring to form a thin sword. The tassel was fashioned after something Blank had no idea. He forgot what Milleia said about those things but he’s sure he never saw the sword in action.
“Remnants of the remnants of the Perccio gang, eh? They could’ve used that hitman from the start but, oh well,” She wore a cat mask, sent Blank something, and removed it again.
When there’s classification of people between their roles, there’s also those who refused to wear their masks. They were either rejects like Mao, or those that went above the age limit of the Fair. Counting her human age, Mao truly had no place near the Tower nor the Fair… or anywhere anymore.
Perhaps… perhaps that’s why she’s enjoying wiping out gangs showing her true identity.
A defect thrived where she’s best suited—in chaos.
For once, Blank quietly trailed behind as she swiftly parkoured her way up the massive buildings. Mere practice wouldn’t begin to simulate her moves, that’s one of the things packaged along her feline genes.
As expected, the sniper shot as soon as she landed. She merely lifted her foot to evade. Reading gun aim was impossible added the fact she only knew her enemy’s general position, she should be lying in the ground now.
Mao used the sheathed sword to deflect this time. Blank only watched in amazement in hiding. Climb if you have to, but don’t stick your neck out too far or you’re dead.
The goal was to pinpoint the gunner’s position as quickly as possible. They knew reinforcements would come once Mao tried using herself as bait so they must be faster. However, no shots were fired for a while.
Did the sniper change position?
A minute later, another shot came but from the opposite direction. Mao fell to ground like a wet rag. Superhuman reflexes she might have, she still couldn’t dodge what’s behind her.
However, the group that appeared to collect her corpse shortly belonged to different clans as suggested by their masks. Usually, the patterns followed something similar like a scar or dragon motif, but these were a mixture…
“…a mixture of all the ruined gangs…”
It was once said that people banded together when intimidated or cornered like those animals raised at the Elite layer. A survival instinct of the weak believing that together, they could defeat anything. Blank understood that all too well because he too, felt the need to join any circle he found beneficiary for Milleia’s growth until later leaving it for a reasoning above his own.
I will reform this government, then the world, then…
That’s why he couldn’t sever ties with Mao who became and acted like their true parents, perhaps more than they ever could. Milleia wasn’t the same, as she learned from books and left him to be taught by the ‘Jezebel’ as she called Mao. Naturally, only he became close to the lady who seemed to be keeping a fixed boundary between them. It might be because she’s a failed Merchandise and she didn’t want for her to inherit the misfortune, but to also distance herself from him, a Concierge, was beyond his comprehension. Why, Master? He wanted to ask, but whenever she spoke the codenames of his parents, he always sensed her anger… resentment towards those two. If she didn’t like them, then why?
Why take us under your wing if we’re… if I’m the reason for… that… those eyes..?
As instructed, Blank followed the group, avoiding the gateways and their attention altogether. The tenacious Mao shouldn't fall down that easy. Following that conviction, he tailed them for as long as he could. When they rode their hover cars however, he had to rely on the bug Mao sent him.
“Still, it's gonna be a long walk.”
“Hey, why can't we do this bitch? I mean, she's still out cold and the rendezvous is quite a ways…”
“Hmph, go ahead and try, the leader's gonna paint the docks with our guts.”
“Oi! Don't you dare mess with the girl. Our job's just to bring her there.”
“I know. I know. But damn, her sleeping figure's already doing things to me.”
“Would you like the guy on your car do it for you instead?”
The chatter on the other hover car stopped. The person they mentioned simply checked the unconscious Mao on the rearview mirror and didn't utter a single word.
“Aw, c'mon man! I was kidding! Shit, I'd rather do my part so we could transition to the new era. Boss-man says we could go for better bitches up there.”
“And this lady here would be our new comrade, so no disrespect until she becomes the enemy.”
“Righty-o! Still… to block the shots of the baddest sniper, damn!”
“It's not just dodging, dumbass. You go try deflecting bullets and see if it's no big deal. That girl's the real deal.”
The sniper clicked his tongue and slept through the useless chatter. These guys are idiots, he thought. If she had been the least bit serious she wouldn't just wait there to get shot.
That cursed jian… she haven't drawn it yet.
The convoy flew through the Commoner district and made route and car swaps numerous times. The sniper occasionally woke up and reminded the guy sitting at the back to tend to the wound on her thigh.
“Uhh, Sir Sniper?”
“Have some respect,” the driver spoke. “You're riding with arguably the best Commoner behind the scope. It's Fianchetto.”
The man named Fianchetto glanced at the rearview mirror once more. “Your question,” His voice was cold and emotionless, like the bullets he sent to his targets.
“Oh, uh… about this bit—lady… aren't we getting a little roundabout? I mean, if she's on gonna be on our side…”
“You've got a point. Why do we need to injure her if she's a core member was what you're sayin, right?” the driver butted in. “Sorry but as the other guys said, our job is to deliver her to the rendezvous. That doesn't include bitching about the why and what.”
“Obey first before you complain, huh,” Fianchetto looked at the flashing ads and the neon lights of the city. “Did you know long ago, armies clashed without knowing squat what they're fighting for?”
“Eeh~? So you still clung to your fantasies? What a surprise.”
The hover car almost crashed to a building when that feminine voice was heard.
“Great, you're playing awake now,” the gunman looked at the mirror again.
Mao still struggled, but she's fine enough to display that playful smile of hers. “Working for Perccio until the end? You were one to be led by the nose. Always.”
“And you always go out of script. He's worried, you know?”
“Nyahahah! For real? Then what? His plan wouldn't work.”
“But you still did your part nevertheless. Who's head was in the clouds again? You're just in denial.”
“Tch, I'll pretend to sleep again. Shoot me in the head or whatever when we arrive.”
It's just as he said, Fianchetto thought. She might hiss and arch her back to appear bigger and try scaring off her opponent, but in the end, she's nothing but a cat. A poor, cornered feline who couldn't even harm anyone without causing herself more pain.
Their hideout was located at the isolated area of the layer where no ordinary people would loiter around. Every person there, masked or not, was an ally. They engaged in games not normally found in the Commoner layer. Anywhere one looked, they'd see someone playing some form of gambling: yahtzee, poker, roulette, hantak, and the more bloody sports. The sounds of coins clinking could be heard to a degree no matter where one went.
Mao dragged herself in crutches there, accompanied by the entourage that once tried killing her. Fianchetto seemed to be on high alert despite being in friendly territory.
“Do I look like a Merchandise still? What's with all this security?” she asked.
“Not for the Fair,” That reply silenced her.
Some of the thugs that they recognized or recognized them greeted them and bowed. Mao even remembered some faces but she felt unease instead of being at home.
“Some of the guys were proud that your jian amputated them, you know—”
“Shut up!” She glared at the Fianchetto with all the rage she might as well kill him with that alone. Even the ones escorting her fell back a step or two. “SHUT. UP.”
He shrugged his shoulders and got moving. He resigned himself that everyone's at Mao's mercy the moment they brought her here. Maybe that person could put a leash on her, but here, no one could. He clutched his beloved partner, a military-grade, bolt-action sniper rifle and fired it at random.
The bullet ricocheted off a pocket knife stuck on a pipe. Seconds later, two chime-like rings were heard.
He caught the knife that fell and handed it to one of the escorts. “As promised.”
“T-Thank you very much, sir.”
They soon reached an unassuming warehouse. Only Fianchetto and Mao proceeded down to the basement leaving behind the amazement of the gang to a feat he's so used to doing.
“It's just a flesh wound, you can walk faster than that.”
“Don't fuck with me.”
“As you wish.”
They descended at a snail's pace. He couldn't complain though since it's her—the princess's command. He's nothing if not for the injured cat before him. Ironic, he thought. Fate had always been a bad comedian yet it always tried found ways to pull off these annoying twists of events.
The girl that saved him became injured because of his doing. If there's a worse joke than that, he'd love to hear.
After treading the dark for almost an hour, the light hurt their eyes. This time, it's an elevator. Fianchetto maneuvered the panel and soon enough, they descended deeper again.
“It'd be funny if I get stuck here and die,” Mao snickered.
Of course that's impossible. There's a bunch of fail-safe mechanisms not just on this elevator but everywhere else. Besides, the group had been paying the government a handsome amount to keep the area adequately powered, since owning their own power grid was out of the question. They're thugs, not corporate bastards.
A wide corridor greeted them after, the walls of which decorated by an exquisite tapestry of a dragon hovering over a lotus pond. The lotus tapestry was inverted so that the bottom of the dragon on the right connected to the lotus at the left.
Mao scoffed at the design. He retained it as is, huh.
Two women stopped Fianchetto at the door. One spoke to Mao, “Princess, would you like to—”
“I'll meet the bastard alone, thank you.”
The two bowed. “Of course.”
The double doors opened and shut as swiftly as it opened.
The interior wasn't impressive because of the lack of design. However, this was indeed the family meeting room she knew. A man emanating a crushing aura sat at the throne looking down on her.
“The Dragon Throne, eh?” she said. “Still tasteless as ever, Rai.”
“That's Jin for you, little sister,” he said. “Don't call family by surname.”
“Heh, I'm not some prodigal kid who comes crying back after leaving home. Your lapdog dragged me here.”
Jin raised an eyebrow. “Fianchetto was yours. He wouldn't—”
“I DON'T WANT HIM ANYMORE!”
“Hmph, still a child, I see. You think living at the Commoner layer away from my protection for a few years made you understand the world? Pitiful girl,” he said. “A Hex wouldn't forget being given food, even more a name.”
“A ‘Hex’, eh? So he's still just a tool even now.”
“You consider him a toy, only for entertainment.”
“Why don't you ask him yourself?”
Mao spat at the foot of the throne. “Tch, this is pointless. Why am I being brought here anyway? To rub my mistakes in the face? That guy… wasn't.. wasn't…”
Jin narrowed his eyes. “You're still confusing one person for another. That man was—”
A wail of anguish filled the room as Mao charged at Jin, her sword ready to stab him. However, it only grazed Jin's cheek as it stabbed the throne around two inches deep.
Fianchetto bust in the room. “Master Rai, what—”
He held a hand to him. “Stop this idiocy, Mao. It's painful to watch.”
He didn't even move but the blade seemed to have evaded him. Mao hissed and gritted her teeth as she tried slicing Jin but her trembling figure lacked the resolve.
“You can't use this jian anymore. It's useless,” He wrapped his arms over her and hugged her patting her hair now stiff and dirty from neglect. “Let's go home, Mao.”
The shrill cry that came from Mao that time was so full of mixed emotions nobody save Jin understood. Maybe it's a howl only family recognized… something only one who knew a person inside out could understand.
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