“Regeneration? Qu Co does miracles indeed,” Mao said, whisking the blood off her jian for the nth time.
In truth, she might've already killed Von ten times. Even cat genes wouldn't save her apprentice.
“Why..?” Von struggled standing up despite appearing to be perfectly fine. “Why return? I thought you wanted to wipe out all the gangs?”
“Why, yes. So that the rebellion would succeed. The government was tricked, even the people were too.”
Von knew Mao was right. With less to worry about, the government seemed to have relaxed its security. For the citizens, the gangs still existed albeit without their leaders. The former territories were still under surveillance by the members and the underground business still propagated. It was a necessity for the Commoners, what with all the good they offered that's not obtainable by normal means.
“The human explosives were pretty. Too bad I haven't seen it live.”
“Master! Please! Wake up!”
“I am awake. Perhaps more than all those years I shut my eyes to what's in front of me. You know what? Your beloved ‘Master’ was simply an excuse for running away. I never wanted to get close to you. She was the one I wanted.”
Seeing Von's dumb expression irked her. She shouldn't have shattered it.
“I don't give a rat's ass to Red and Blue. I want Milleia,” Mao sighed. “Guess I should at least tell you this, since you'd die sooner or later.”
“Heh, as if I'd go down that easy. Remember who trained me?”
“Have fun trying to put your training to use once the poison starts destroying your body. No medicine is without poison, haven't I told you that?”
She could've killed me over and over to wear the regenerative effect, but she chose to seek shelter and tell stories. Master… why… what happened..? What did fate do to you to be this… confused? Lost? As far as his body language reading skills go, Von could surmise she really didn't want to fight. That might be the reason she always struck somewhere lethal—she only wanted some peace and quiet. She had enough.
Milleia. For some reason, her name made Von's chest hurt.
Maybe it's her lot in life, but Mao was convinced she really messed up.
She was still adjusting to her new life then. The feline genes made her act weird sometimes; licking her arms, sleeping most of the day off, and being overly clean she needed at least nine baths a day and still feel dirty.
Mao wasn't doing all that simply because of her new lifestyle—maybe she did at first, but later on, she's being especially conscious of herself. Her hair that had changed color to resemble something tiger-like became silky smooth due to the care she put into it. Even her choice of accessories became more refined. Mao strived to be the best in every facet.
Everybody chalked it up as their princess hitting puberty, but she couldn't care less. She was disqualified to be Madonna, a dream that left her devastated for quite a long time despite her hiding it well. In truth, Mao wanted to just bite off her tongue her die, until she met him that is.
He was, in simple words, her salvation.
Mao didn't make her move that day. She only groomed herself to be the best so that one day, when she's ready to step out and confess, she'd have the best chance to success. Actually, she often found herself daydreaming of that sweet special day, giggling, that her attendants would only smile thinking their princess was in a good mood.
More years passed and she's finally ready. Tomorrow. She'd say it. When he overheard Jin talking to someone about how he wanted to have another shot at the Fair gave her more confidence. If her Concierge was desperate to put her out there, how much more him, a lowly servant of her dear brother?
I'll make this work, she convinced herself. No one would get in my way.
Alas, the unthinkable happened. The mansion was broken in by a thief that night and Mao, who became a light-sleeper, didn't even wake up until Jin himself woke him up.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, to which she shook her head.
She's so sleepy. She only remembered Red, one of her attendants, giving her a mug of warm milk as usual then falling into a deep sleep.
Minutes later, the culprits were apprehended. As fate played one of its fancy twists, one of the thieves was none other than him.
Jin asked why they thought of stealing the jian when he paid them well. He was known for treating everyone well. This was his first time of getting betrayed.
“The jian was cursed,” Blue said. “We were from a religion that sought to seal dangerous items away.”
“I see,” Jin said. “You do understand this was the Lotus clan's crest so you've tried earning our trust before carrying out your duty.”
“No! You've got it all wrong!” the man said. “I was the one who forced them to steal it. They just wanted to tell you about it but I said you'd never listen.”
Blue was surprised while Red only shut her eyes and bit her lip in resignation. As much as Jin was respected due to his fair treatment, he was also feared for his drastic nature.
And as display of that, he immediately shot the man at an arm. “You are willing to take the fall? Very well. These two shall be thrown to pri—”
“No, brother,” Mao picked up the jian. “You said this was cursed, right nya? Why don't I see you curse RIGHT HERE AND NOW NYA?”
Lingchi, as it was called. The man endured a slow torture as he got skinned slowly. Mao had been excellent with the jian now that she could control where and how she'd slice. Bits of blood and flesh would fall off with every swing. However, as the term suggested lingering death, Mao had a better idea. After a couple of slices, usually around a liter of blood loss, she'd stop. He'd then be treated and cared for until the next round. The atrocity went on for months—a vicious cycle of pain and rebirth.
It was diagnosed later that Red was with child, so Jin, who knew it'd be against the law, sent them for the facility where they'd await her delivery, and after which, they'd be demoted to the lower layer. That was when Jin understood how cruel Mao's birth came to be. He couldn't kill them since his trust was already shaken. He couldn't place confidence that nobody would report this to the government who, as far as he understood, wouldn't take bribes for a heinous crime as robbing the world of a potential Madonna candidate.
Unfortunately, fate was nowhere near done yet. It's just about halfway.
A woman also snuck in with Red and Blue as they were sent to the government facility. The move was so stealthly done that no one but Mao knew. Well, why wouldn't she? She knew that scent all too well. The smell of a thieving harlot.
Now fueled by her newfound rage, she swore to find that woman's child and bring misery and pain the child's life. However, by that time, as if the tiny mercy on her heart finally got the chance to work, she had killed the man for good. The man she loved.
The man she loved had a child with another woman.
That must be why Milleia was wary of her. It could be her instincts, but the sheer disgust emanating from Mao must've caught on to her. Mao wanted to make her suffer so badly. The jian wanted her blood. Mao wanted her blood.
But she couldn't.
“Master, I did it! I beat my last record! I bet I'm faster than the wind now!”
This child… Red and Blue's son. He became her light.
“I've done my share of mistakes and I don't want any more. I hope you understand, Von.”
“Aren't you a Concierge? I'm sure you'd—”
Mao smiled. “Wanna fight for what you think is right then? I mean, that's one way to prove yourself”
Von dropped his dagger and raised his hands. However, his face showed something concrete within him. Resolve. His will. “I told you I'd get you home, and damn right I will even if I die!”
Mao shook her head. “Can't nya see? That's not where I belong anymore. Mimi has that place now. I'm not your mother either. I'm just a drifter without purpose.”
Von took a step forward. Mao took one back. However, Von didn't stop.
“Stay back,” She pointed the jian to him. The tip was unsteady perhaps due to her feeling the cold in her bones now.
Von said nothing and moved onward.
“I said!” She swung her sword with eyes closed. She didn't want to hurt anyone anymore. She's sick of being hurt. Why me?
The cursed jian.
Mao lashed out and wildly swung the blade into an unseen enemy. Von didn't care even if he got cut, the regenerative effect had stopped and he already felt the nanomachines in his blood going berserk.
If I'm gonna die, then at least..!
He caught her arm and locked her in a hug. Mao resisted but after a while, she finally calmed down and started sobbing.
“I'm sorry,” She repeated over and over as she cried. That's just how it was. Life wasn't going to pamper anyone, in fact, it would be delighted to throw hardship more than anything.
“It's alright, Master. You can cry all you want.”
The cursed jian. That's what he heard her say. It was a very valuable and very dangerous item that's lost from the ancient civilization. Von had been researching the sword when the riots broke out. He didn't know why, but his gut feeling pointed out that Mao's fate was terribly related to it. And so, he did.
He even dragged Tori into it, since she could access the net deeper than he could. “Aren't you worried about Milleia?” she asked. He just answered with, “That's exactly why I'm doing this.”
What he found out was extremely underwhelming. That the sword was cursed and it brought misfortune to whoever wields it, that some very rich collectors on the upper layer would pay astronomical amounts of Phi to obtain it, nothing he didn't know already. However, there's that one phrase that bugged him. All of the texts, the hearsay said one thing in common aside from the obvious.
That the curse was shaped according to the wielder. Therefore, every instance was unique.
Naturally, there'd be no evidence to prove the claim, and it might be just the fluff embellished on the myths to make it appear far worse than it actually was.
Mao clung to Von as if their roles were reversed. In the process, she had dropped the sword and scabbard she held on her hands. Perhaps, the answer was so simple after all.
Master, don't worry now. Please be at ease for I would be lifting that stupid weight you've carried all those years. I wouldn't know, nor would I be able to empathize, but as your disciple and son, this will be my duty.
Mao's body went tense for a second, yet accepted the final act of kindness one could give to another.
Lian Mao had finally died.
“Hey, fancy seeing you here,” A familiar figure waved when Von reached the top of the tall building. The supposed mastermind of the rebellion—Jin Rai—was here. And he was indeed.
Fianchetto snickered. “As if. Master had already gone ahead, making me the only surviving member of the Lotus clan and of the rebellion as a whole. Ironic. How about you?” He chinned the thin sword wrapped around on Von's hand. “Did… how did the princess leave?”
Von couldn't lift his arms anymore. The prosthetic was busted while his organic one was numb. To be fair, it's a miracle he could still stand. “Full of regret.”
“Figures. Her life was so messed up she couldn't even die even if she wanted to. And guess what? You'll be carrying that with you now.”
“Heh, if I survive, that is.”
“Who do you think trained you?”
After four long weeks, the rebellion had finally ended. Jin Rai, the supposed leader and his Merchandise and foster sister Mao Lian were nowhere to be found. The police had been on search for their whereabouts.
That's what the news flashed for quite a while. As with everything, the city slowly forgot about it and the Commoner layer resumed operations.
Everything had been fine. At least for everyone else.