An unexpected visitor.
Jin turned to greet the late comer. “So, being punctual is not beautiful?”
The man that arrived walked calmly towards him and offered another umbrella. He wore a stoic mask, yet unlike most, he wore a trench coat and not the usual hooded cloak. “Don't take this as an act of kindness. I simply don't want a persistent guy falling ill. You made great contribution to society. You're also free to interpret it as your privilege,” a voice of an old woman cracked from the speaker of the radio clipped on the man's coat.
Upon hearing that, Jin had no choice but to oblige.
“And please don't take this the wrong way,” she added. “I couldn't personally visit despite your demands because unlike you whose worth would considerably drop after this, I still had a Fair to organize. Then there's also the danger of you killing a helpless old hag. Too many risks, to be honest.”
“Your government or yourself, I gave you options.”
“So, I'm here.”
“By your logic I'm also there.”
“See? Told you you'd snap out, keheheheh.”
The man moved near the edge of the building. Jin followed suit. A battered guy met up with his sister. Actually, Mao wasn't a real blood relative but Jin liked to think that she was.
“Your relationship with your Merchandise was fascinating,” she said. “She—Lian, Mao also treated you as her brother. Perhaps due to the gang environment, or she loved you like family. I'm willing to bet to the latter.”
“Hmph, as expected of the Arbiter. You know everything.”
“Kehehe, don't patronize me. I just did my research before coming. Hmm, maybe you're correct. These secrets weren't available anywhere else! Isn't that beautiful, knowing everything without having to do with it?”
The Arbiter, or more accurately, the only living thing capable of human speech and assessing the beauty of anyone or anything. It wouldn't be an exaggeration with her saying her value far outweighed Jin's, in fact, she had no competition. After all, there's no one out there who's able to do what she could that's why, in a sense, the Arbiter was God.
Jin considered the idea one of madness. After that day, the idea of beauty, of the core of this society, eluded him. He once sought it as fervent as, if not more than, the others and used his resources to the fullest to be able to capture its essence. But now…
“You did your Merchandise dirty, Concierge Jin Rai,” she said. “You who did the unthinkable to your own sister…”
“I cannot regret what already happened.”
“Regret?” The Arbiter laughed heartily. “Your terminology is warped like your ideals. Hehe, what you lacked was conviction, child, conviction. You don't have to regret nor shrug it off as if it never happened.”
Jin answered in silence.
The Arbiter had a camera setup with her radio so she could see. Apparently, something was happening at the central pillar. The attacks should've stopped for a bit, but to suddenly be this lively all of a sudden…
“You seemed to be unusually calm when your candidates are dying left, right, and center. Aren't you arresting me on charges of rebellion?”
“There you go again spouting nonsense. What you wanted to happen today were two things: one is to establish a new government, unfortunately you can't do it when you don't even know what's broken in the first place. Way to leap before looking, huh? Or so what those with a functioning brain but not using it properly would think. They haven't considered Jin Rai to be using his brain way better than them.
“You aren't gonna reform anything. At least not before the important step. What you wanted first and foremost were answers. Am I right, so far?”
“Oh, I needed your confirmation. After all, I could read brains but not hearts, you know?”
The neural chip. So that's where she's getting all the information. The hands-free mask operation was just a front. However, with the identity problem, people had no choice but to implant. Still, it wasn't a perfect system. She wouldn't be able to read the Merchandise who remained free from impurities. Well, there were some who succumbed to have their value slightly drop in order to continue living given the harsh environment, but those like Mao who had no financial problems would do well without the chip.
“Ah, it was all voluntary,” The Arbiter's representative tapped him head. “Qu Co gave you a bunch of documents to consent to before anything else. Don't tell me you just clicked agree without giving it so much as a once-over? Terrible habits, Jin Rai of the Lotus clan.”
Jin did read it carefully. In fact, he used some good Phi to obtain a copy but he hasn’t found anything relating to this mind-reading bullshit the Arbiter spewed.
“Were you connected to the network?” he asked.
“Not as seamlessly as you expected, but enough to be able to scout possible Madonna candidates.”
“What is the Madonna anyway? This city… this society that revolved around vying to be as close to the ideal human as possible, what the hell is this system?”
“Fufu, it was said that when one questions his society's morals then that individual doesn't belong there in the first place. Jin Rai, what you're doing just now was digging upward of this underground world. You're not allowed of such thoughts, remember that.”
Von arrived to the point and saw Mao getting drenched in the rain. Her tourmaline hanfu and multicolored hair clinging to her figure. If he hadn't been a Concierge, he wouldn't know where to place his eyes but after seeing Milleia naked too many times, he got used to it. Besides, Mao was his mother, he wouldn't—
“Mm, so you've come,” she spoke. “Won't you join me admire the stars, Von?”
“Stars..? What are you…” He looked up, and as expected, there's just the faint lights and a million droplets of rain pouring down.
“They're there, but you can't see them now because they're gone.”
“Master, let's go.”
She shook her head. “There's… nowhere to go but here.”
“Kill the mastermind then,” Her yellow irises glowed as she glared at him. “Kill Rai, Jin of the Lotus clan. Only then will you be able to take me. However,” She drew her sword. “I won't show mercy.”
Dammit, I needed to fight her at this state? I sure have the world against me, Von thought.
“Now, show me whose resolve shone greater!”
“Dammit all,” He used a dose of the drug he got from Tori. Nothing went in his plan but like cutting a deal, one should be prepared to make compromises.
The drug this time wasn't as destructive as the last. He just wanted the usual but Tori insisted he had this one instead. It causes some sort of reaction on the nanomachines, or so he was told.
In an instant, he felt the effects. His wounds didn't hurt anymore, or more specifically, they've healed. He wasn't feeling so tired anymore.
With renewed strength coursing through his veins, Von gripped his dagger and readied to face his master.
“You always picked the hard way, Master. You always do.”
The two clashed blades with Von on the offensive. Due to his daggers reach, he couldn't let Mao take the lead that's why he must be the one setting the tempo.
Obviously, none of his attacks went through. Mao easily shrugged off his blade or held his arm or leg to prevent him from swinging it. Splish, splash, their feet disturbed the puddles of rain. Mao had yet to make her move.
It's her style, baiting the opponent to show the extent of their abilities then later exploiting every gap she saw after. Once she started, she couldn't be stopped. It might be possible for the dog mask Von once fought, but he had his doubts on his skills.
He attempted a stab to her stomach. Mao swatted his hand away and leapt back. Von went closer again. That's about what they did.
“Remember, no medicine is without poison,” Tori warned him. “That stuff's pretty new and I haven't run enough tests to figure everything out.”
“Wait, so I'm your guinea pig?”
“Well, its effects aren't as devastating as the meth-based thing you've been consuming. You might want to hurry up your business before your body starts to react though.”
Easier said than done, Von had been leading the tempo but Mao remained untouched. And then…
Von tried aiming for her sword hand. Mao swung back her right hand and spun. Von was slapped in the face with her hair that's soaked in the rain. His eyes hurt. Dazed, he staggered a few steps back—
—and Mao was already gone.
He turned around but his body was slow to respond. Was it because he used up his energy with all those useless attacks?
Mao's sword travelled an elegant arc as she whisked away something dark. Apparently, she was done.
When he finally realized, his stomach burned and he felt like his insides were about to spill. He lifted the hand that instinctively touched it.
One word occupied Von's mind.
That curse word was in big, red letters blaring incessantly like some warning sign in his head as he stared at his own blood. The rain slowly diluted it until his palm was clean again. He felt lightheaded.
However, Mao wasn't done. She charged straight at him again with the intent of ending her misery.
Von had been late to react but the good thing was that his knees gave out the moment the sword reached him. He landed on his butt and that seemed to slap him back to reality. He rolled over before Mao could swing down. The sword hit nothing.
Strangely though, his wound healed up again. Mao must've realized it that's why she's the one pressuring Von.
“What if your Merchandise wasn't who she was, will you still groom her?”
The Arbiter posed a seemingly rhetorical question. The pairings were done right after birth and it's her, the Arbiter's job to decide who goes to whom. There were cases where siblings were paired up, but there's also those who waited for a few more years before their match came up.
That's the case for Jin. He waited five long years before Mao was born that's why in the meantime, he had poured his heart and soul on establishing an underground network so when his very own Merchandise was brought to the world, he could always provide for her needs.
He was as excited as the Lian couple, unknown as they might be to him. The reason was because the parents broke some rule and were destined to be sent to the Hex layer, but due to the government and the Arbiter's help these babies were given to those who had no Concierge or Merchandise. Jin carefully followed the whole procedure, afraid that some rich person would buy her off for staggering amounts of Phi.
Yeah right, he thought. As if I'm a poor brat in dire need of cash. I'm ready.
He closely monitored Mao, giving her only the best the city could offer. Knowledge, clothes, food, facilities, for everything he only picked the best. And it was evident that Mao became more beautiful by the day. As early as four years old, she already participated the entrance ceremony.
However, due to her having a ‘fundamental shortcoming’, she wasn't even let in. The silver lining was that she was spared of the bloodbath after the tests. Jin still had no idea of the terror of the entrance ceremony.
That's the beginning of the changes. Jin got acquainted to a doctor who promised of a successful operation whatever Jin decided to do with his Merchandise. Mao couldn't object; after all, she belonged to her Concierge.
He was promised success. The doctor stayed true to the deal. The first ever cross of human and animal genes was made. But still, it was all for naught.
The Arbiter disqualified Mao yet again.
The radio cracked again. “You only look at outward appearances. That's the problem.”
“Oh, don't worry. I wasn't blaming you or anyone. You only did what you could. You can't look past that,” She spoke with sadness. For once, the Arbiter didn't sound condescending. “Concierge Jin Rai, can you give me your definition of beauty?”
“A lotus flower,” he answered instantly.
“Gahahahah! I was about to sip some tea first but whatever. Correct. Flowers are beautiful. Lotuses are beautiful. Even you are, and that lady fighting over there.”
“I denied her because my definition of beauty far transcended anyone. I am special, even if I hate to gloat. A cut above others.”
“So how does the best define beauty?”
“Hmm, that might be quite difficult. Kindly look at the dance of blades beneath you. That is beautiful.”
After a while, Mao kicked Von in the stomach sending him sprawling into the dirty ground. A trail of crimson was on the ground coming from Von himself.
The Arbiter sounded pleased. “Did you see that? That's also beautiful!”
“Hmph, so it's basically anything that struck your fancy.”
A gold coin rolled nearby. It rolled at little before settling near Jin's foot.
The Arbiter spoke, “I don't follow the rule of Phi.”
“Phi? The currency or..?”
“Yes, the concept. While everyone blindly chased the golden ratio, I went beyond. You see, Phi itself was irrational. The currency also was a whimsical demon devouring anyone who fell prey to it. You did. That young man did. Everyone else did.”
Jin was busy observing the battle to comment anything meaningful. Although if he could, he wanted to say they've been trapped precisely because of the Madonna race. Nobody forced them to participate. They always had the option of putting down the mask and living in peace but no, they were blinded by the shine and sparkle of the throne. Everyone had tried at least once in their lives. He had yet to see someone who haven't the slightest interest of becoming Madonna.
Greed. Money was the personification of the deadly sin, and they fell victim. Everyone was too busy earning Phi to buy better goods for their Merchandise. So that they might close the gap to being perfect, despite not having a clue to the criteria of becoming one. It's like trying to build a building without knowing what a building was.
The Arbiter didn't want that. She desired something that couldn't be so easily put into words.
“You're starting to overthink,” she said. “That's the first step to rejecting reality. What was right, what was wrong, you simply confuse yourself. If anything, that was your ugliness.”
“I don't even need to read your mind to know. Jin Rai, you stopped being a Concierge—a human—when you were this close to the truth. I am truth. I told you I was special.”
“Society existed because of me. I could search the network far deeper than any of you could. That's the reason why your so called ‘rebellion’ went through. Don't you find it odd that your human bombs were let in at the central pillar prison in the first place? I willed for it to happen. Why, you ask? Isn't the answer obvious? Because it's—”
As if hearing enough, Jin pulled the trigger on the Arbiter's representative. The man fell to the ground and was drenched at soon as his umbrella dropped. A pool of blood dyed the puddle where his head was and it reached Jin's boots quickly.
“I'm fed up with you playing God. I've heard enough. I'll destroy the government, Qu Co, everything. Your society built on this absurd concept of beauty shall be erased.”
“Kahahahah!” the radio still functioned. “Fool! It's not me playing God, you lot elected me as your god! And the cycle will continue for without a leader who'd bear the burden, no order would be born. Heh, no sense explaining that to your Commoner brain. This is the last time we will talk anyway. Farewell. I hope you find a world where it'd make you the main char—”
Jin shot the radio and camera down.
The Arbiter, this world was far more terrifying than he thought. He spent his life abiding by the rules, creating decisions that haunt him to this day. Still, he couldn't find the way. And as the Arbiter had said, those who travelled out of bounds would be rejected.
Were those the answers he wanted to hear? A contradictory Arbiter, an enigmatic mega-company, a symbol of perfection but was actually the avatar of greed of all the people. Perhaps, that's the reason why religion was shunned; in a world where society could elect their deity, another more was unnecessary. After all, there can only be one Madonna.
He threw away his umbrella and returned to soaking himself bone-deep in the rain. Looking up at the faint lights above, the leader of the Lotus clan couldn't even let out a scream for the frustration he felt.
For once, the Arbiter had it wrong.
“I wasn't… trying to become some hero… I just…”
Suddenly, he envied Mao for having the ability to scream out her feelings to the world. If only he… he could…
Somewhere at the Lotus clan underground mansion, the tiger koi at the pond which wasn't running for weeks now due to the power outage floated upside-down.