I walk quietly through Pamthen, looking around at the rowdy warriors everywhere, drinking themselves silly, picking fights against all and sundry, and generally being a bunch of insufferable assholes.
Pretty much like any warrior anywhere, really.
Right now, I’m not wearing my usual form. I currently look like a stout, old, matronly human woman, with wiry gray hair. I have large muscles and wide shoulders and a battle-scarred, ferocious face. I’m ugly enough that even a drunk, blind idiot wouldn’t even consider touching me. Which is just as I want it, of course. If I appeared in my true appearance in this place, I’d end up in a back alley somewhere with a string of guys taking turns to fuck me, no matter my protests.
As it is, my way is peaceful. The people I see, contestants of this meaningless pissing contest of a tournament along with their attendants and their spectators, all ignore me like I don’t even exist. I take a swig from the bottle of cheap rum I swiped from the ship earlier and enjoy the feeling of the chilly breeze cooling my face flushed from alcohol.
And I curse inwardly at the Major and her willfulness.
What possessed her to travel to this damned shithole? Did her patriotic fervor suddenly awaken and push her to come and cheer for the majin to win first place? Did she decide this would be a nice opportunity to meet plenty of humans to slaughter? Probably more the latter than the former, all things considered – the Major doesn’t give a shit about helping the majin; she just wants to extinguish the humans. Both goals will lead to the same thing, maybe, but the philosophy is quite different.
Anyway, no matter what the reason, it’s just fine with me.
As long as she doesn’t take me along for the ride, that is.
Which she has.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t be drinking away my sorrows in such a dangerous place.
If anyone here discovered that I’m not as human as I look, I’d be torn apart before I could even finish this bottle. In the buffer zone between the majin and human parts of Pamthen, things may look more chaotic, but there are relatively few deaths, because no one wants to be the one to spark off an international incident and be thrown into the grinder. Here, however, in the heart of the human neighborhood, anyone who’d know about a Majin being murdered would be someone who’d rejoice at the fact.
Eventually, my aimless wanderings bring me to a quieter part of town. I stop in front of a wooden, two-story building. I glance at the flag hung above the front door.
With a small smirk lifting the corners of my lips, I glance up and down the street to make sure no one’s there to pay attention to me. Then, my features and body start changing again, flowing like melted clay into a different appearance. Not all that different, overall, but enough to notice. It’s a face I used quite recently, as it happens, when the Major and I started our search for Akasha. A bit of guesswork was involved in its creation, at the time, since I hadn’t used this particular identity in quite a few years. To be credible, I had to account for human aging rate.
When I’m done, I’ve become a tad younger and a tad slimmer than before, and instead of being downright ugly, I now look rather dignified, with thin, severe lips and sharp, slanted eyes. My hair is cut short, the tips barely brushing my shoulders, with bangs cut straight above my bushy eyebrows.
Satisfied, I take a few steps and knock on the building’s front gate, amusing myself by spinning the bottle of rum in my hand and listening to the splashing liquid inside.
It’s only a few seconds before the door opens to reveal an attractive young woman. She too is human, of course, and her eyes widen upon seeing me. “Milenna!” she calls loudly, using the fake name she knows me by. “It’s been a while… Or not – a few months. I didn’t expect you to be in this place, though. Please, come in.”
“Sirona,” I say with a friendly nod and smile, then step inside as she makes way for me. The room is stark and utilitarian, with merely a wooden table and a few chairs serving as furniture. There is no bed in evidence, so I assume the sleeping quarters are on the upper floor. “Jasper,” I call to the tired-looking man sitting at the table, who’s so busy glancing through a pile of papers that he hasn’t even noticed my presence. The fingers of one of his hands absently drum a staccato on the armrest of his chair.
He glances up, and his face lights up in surprise when he sees me – surprise which is quickly replaced by realization, for some reason, upon which he starts nodding several times. “Milenna, good to see you.”
“Likewise,” I say as I take a seat opposite him while Sirona does the same on the other side of the table, besides Jasper. “What’s with your reaction, though? Were you expecting to see me or something?”
“Not really, I just – hey, is that what I think it is?” he asks upon seeing the open bottle of rum I placed before me on the table.
“Cheap booze is what it is. Don’t tell me you want me to share? I was hoping you had something better yourself that I could mooch off you.”
“We don’t,” Sirona says, shaking her head. “We didn’t bring any consumables with us. We figured there would be open shops and bars in Pamthen to fulfill all our needs.”
“Damn profiteers, I say,” Jasper curses bitterly. “They know pretty much everyone is in the same situation as us and we have no alternative other than look for their business, so they’re hiking up the prices to ridiculous levels. Theft, plain and simple.”
I shrug. “You had to expect this would happen. You can only blame yourself for your lack of foresight.” But I still push the bottle toward him, making it slide precariously over the tabletop, almost spilling its contents on his paperwork. As Jasper gives his thanks and takes a swig, wincing at the bite of the alcohol, I ask, “So? You didn’t answer my question. Were you expecting me?”
Jasper lowers the bottle and sends it back to me the same way I did to him. I catch it and raise it to my lips in turn, enjoying the burn of the rum in my throat. “No,” Jasper says, smacking his lips. “But after meeting Miss Akasha here, seeing you too isn’t that much of a surprise. I’m glad you’ve finally found her. You seemed pretty anxious about it, three months ago.”
Through the haze of alcohol hanging over my thoughts, it takes me a few moments to process and understand his words. When I do, the next mouthful of rum almost spurts out of my nose at the shock. I slam the bottle on the table and wipe my mouth on the sleeve of my coat, goggling at him. “What? What did you say?! Akasha’s here?”
Jasper blinks, then exchanges a meaningful look with Sirona next to him. He turns back to me and replies hesitantly, “Right. She came to visit us maybe… an hour ago? Half an hour, even?” He glances at Sirona again, for confirmation.
“That sounds about right,” she says.
“B–But, what? I mean, why? What did she come to see you for?”
“She came to take part in the tournament. She wanted to join the High-Sea Verse’s team. Though, presumably because she didn’t have any other sponsor, rather than any sense of loyalty. You didn’t know? I thought you came to see us because you’d finally found her and she’d told you we were here.”
“No. No, I didn’t know…”
My voice trails off as my mind rolls back from the blow of the news.
That Akasha? Take part in a tournament?
Is that a joke?
If it is, it’s… well, it’s actually pretty funny.
Does she even know what a tournament is? Does she know those aren’t death matches? Won’t she just slaughter every other contestant on the field before the referee even announces the start of the festivities?
But, damn. Really? Akasha’s here?
Is that long, life-threatening trek across the human world with the Major going to end just like this? I didn’t expect this. Looks like the bitch’s idea to come here and take a look at this place wasn’t as stupid as I thought…
I slowly recover from the shock and ask absent-mindedly, “What did you guys talk about?”
“Like I said, the tournament. Though, we didn’t really talk about anything. You should know this friend of yours isn’t exactly one for small talk. When I saw her, I at least tried to make a little conversation, but, well, nope. It just went something like, ‘I want to participate.’ ‘Sure.’ ‘Thanks. Bye.’ And that was it. The whole thing was over in three minutes, tops.”
I snort in amusement.
Yeah. That sounds like her.
“You never did tell us who she was,” Sirona says suddenly. “Even when you came to ask where she’d headed to, a few months back, you were in such a hurry that you didn’t answer any of our questions.”
That was more because the Major was breathing down my neck than because of any real hurry, though. I just didn’t want her to think I was actually friends with some humans! With her mortal hatred of them, it might have ended up badly for me, afterward, so I cut things short.
“Right,” Jasper nods, following up on his wife’s question. “Why did you send a devil to register as a mercenary? At the Verse, no less? How did you guys meet? What’s the whole thing about?”
I smirk and send the bottle of rum sliding toward Jasper again. “I’ll give you guys this jar of high-quality, divine nectar in exchange for keeping all my little secrets.” I lift a finger in front of my lips and smile. “Things wouldn’t end well for me if I blabbed about this too much. Suffice it to say that Akasha needed an identity, and I remembered you owed me a few favors, so I sent her to cash them in.”
Jasper lets out a non-committal groan. “Hmm. Well, no skin off our backs, I suppose.”
“Even with the bounty on her head?” I ask teasingly. “You’re not worried I’m leading you into a trap of some sort that will eventually end in the Verse’s utter destruction?”
Jasper shakes his head. “The Verse isn’t so weak that we’d let the empire shit on our boots like that. And it’s not like it’s the first time one of our mercenaries finds herself on the wrong side of the law. They might send hunters after Miss Akasha herself, but they won’t mess with the Verse just because we gave the girl a card. Especially since it’s a matter of public record she never took any contract from us. As I said, no skin of our backs. And now, we’re getting our money’s worth with her participation in this tournament. With her power in the balance, we should get a decent ranking, which is always good for public relations.”
Somehow, I doubt that.
Thinking about it, I even wonder if the tournament is going to conclude peacefully. Will there be a ranking at all if the entire competition venue is wiped off the map?
Especially if the Major joins the fray…
Maybe I shouldn’t have thought about it, because the more I do, the more my belly twists into anxious knots. Hopefully, I’ll survive the next few days.
Afterward, I quickly bid my farewells to Jasper and Sirona. The Major will want to hear of this, and additionally, I don’t want to betray myself to them. I first met the two of them when I had to infiltrate the High-Sea Verse mercenary group for a mission, but it’s been a good long while since then. I may have forgotten important details about this particular identity, perhaps enough to arouse suspicion if ‘Milenna’ says the wrong thing or acts the wrong way.
Back in the night streets, I hurry back toward the majin part of Pamthen.
Jasper didn’t know where Akasha went after visiting him, but maybe the Major will have ways to find her in this town. If we can get the girl and leave before the tournament even starts, that would be ideal.
When I arrive at our hideout, a few minutes later, I find it deserted.
“Boss?” I call, ignoring the stinging ache spreading through my whole body – what I got for shifting twice in one night, plus returning to my default form just now. “Boss? You there?”
No answer is forthcoming.
And of course, the Major didn’t leave a note to explain her absence. That would be too polite, too convenient. I guess I’m supposed to know where she’s gone as a matter of course, and if I can’t guess correctly, she’ll torture me in some new and inventive way.
Well, fuck it.
I’m not going to run all over town looking for someone who likely doesn’t want me to find her. She’ll just hear the news when she comes back.
Actually, maybe I just shouldn’t tell her.
It’ll make for a pleasant surprise for her, tomorrow, when she looks at the lineup of matches and realizes that her target is right there in front of her. It’ll be funny to see the surprise on her face. And it’s not like I’d be able to earn any favor from that bitch by reporting my findings to her, anyway. Better let things follow their natural course.
Good. Let’s do it like this, then.
Pleased with myself, I wearily settle down on the only bed in the house and close my eyes, my face split between a frown at the pain of my straining powers and a smile at the idea that the Major’s important matter will be delayed, even if for just a bit.
One finds satisfaction where one can.