“i’ve got YOU NOW!”
Voice thickly layered with hoarse malice, inhumane to even her own ears, Michiko swung her knife forward vigorously—the Forward grabbed the edge of the pallet and slammed it down onto her before the blade could connect. She recoiled, stumbling backwards in midair. By the time the stars in her vision had cleared up and her gaze refocused, he was a good distance away, skulking around another pair of pallets.
Grumbling a string of high-pitched hisses, Michiko gathered herself and stalked after him. That had been too late; she should’ve gone for the kill sooner. No matter. The fear leaking out of him signalled that he wouldn’t be able to last much longer.
They returned to the cat-and-mouse game. He’d already shot at her twice with a flare gun—there wasn’t going to be a third. It ended, all too easily, when the Forward carelessly turned his back to her. She dashed across the barricade between them, and with an extended diagonal slash from his shoulder to his hip, the Forward cried out and collapsed on the floor in front of her.
Michiko huffed, breath gravelly. Finally, she thought, wiping her knife—
The wail of a siren reverberated throughout Moonlit River Park, and the Forward was darting away again.
Michiko made a furious gurgling noise.
He rounded a corner, once, no doubt trying to buy time for his teammates to open the gate, or wrench open the godforsaken dungeon, whatever, but she’d already trampled on the pallet he had pulled down. She rounded the corner after him.
He’d be within reach in a matter of just another loop around this stupid barricade.
The Forward, sides heaving and audibly panting, made for another bend. There was no way he’d be able to run to anywhere else. Michiko dove in for the last attack, with no other tricks up his sleeve—
—only for her to shriek and flinch backwards as her own face—her own disgusting, transformed face—morphed in front of her in a shade of blue.
It’d only taken a split second before she whipped her fan to cover her face, but the image burned itself into her retinas. Her mask covered most of her hideous scars left from when she had been alive, but the dull reptilian-like eyes were impossible to hide. Everything came back in a horrible, jarring moment—something gleamingly sharp hovering over her, her breaths rapid and painful—the thing hurting her most was a crushing ache in her chest that she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone goodbye—
The Forward was halfway across the park.
“stupid, STUPID,” she muttered to herself like a curse.
That had just been Mary’s mirror. To think it’d position itself in such a way…
Her angry breath relaxed into a weary sigh as she morphed back into her usual form. He was well out of her reach, and nearing the open gate; there wasn’t a point going after him. It’d been terribly easy when she first came to the manor, but it’d seemed now the survivors had gotten much too used to her—she couldn’t catch anyone anymore. Perhaps she’d outlived her usefulness.
Perhaps she was going to be unwanted again.
The sky across Moonlit River Park was dark. Michiko snapped her fan shut, then, muscles twitching, she teleported back to the manor in streaks of red and black.
“I saw. Your match.”
Michiko had been crossing the common room back to her quarters when Bonbon mechanically marched up to her from where it’d been sitting on a tattered couch. It’d almost given her a fright; the survivors’ side of the manor was gloomy, but the hunters’ was impossibly dark—the lights that did work often sparked and buzzed. The sudden movement of golden gleam had made her jolt, but she composed herself before she morphed and bowed to the robot at a practised forty-five degree.
“I’m grateful you spent the time to watch my performance, Bonbon,” she said, plastering on her ever-courteous smile.
“That was. A close win.”
“It was. Mary is certainly quite formidable.”
“Yes. She took. Five down.” Bonbon’s head rotated up to look at her, grinding of gears echoing. “You: zero.”
Michiko looked down at it. Lifted her fan, spread it open with a flick of her wrist. She fluttered it over her mouth. “Why, yes. They’ve gotten better at running from me.”
“Not. The point. It was teamwork. You injure. She chairs.” Bonbon paused, as if to survey her expression. Burke had once said it did that sometimes. Michiko raised the fan higher and tried to still her calm appearance. “After the last cipher. You had the Forward. But you stopped. Halfway. Why?”
Exhaling softly, Michiko’s eyes wandered away to a shadowy corner of the room, where a lamp that hadn’t been working since she came stood. Alone. “I simply believed he was going to shoot me of some sort. I hadn’t been counting the number of flare guns he’d used.”
“No reason. To flinch.”
“Well, you work with bombs all the time. I’m not used to loud things, you know. They still frighten me a bit sometimes.”
Bonbon tittered. “Oh. I see. Then. Rest well.”
With locked movements, Bonbon rotated and clanked away, feet pedalling rhythmically down the hallway. Michiko watched it leave, eyes trained on the flowers clasped to its back, then continued en route back to her own room.
She’d always known Burke was a great inventor, to the point where he relied solely on his gadgets to ensnare and capture survivors during matches, but still—it was impressive that he’d managed to construct a hunk of metal capable of detecting emotions, whether he did it intentionally or not.
...Or maybe she’d just been too obvious?
Her eyes caught a dusty cobweb in a corner Violetta might’ve left behind sometime ago. Well, Bonbon had left without saying much in the end. She still appreciated the notion. Most of the hunters preferred being encapsulated in their solitary confinements, but some of them like Bonbon and Violetta were more willing to interact with her than others. It could’ve just been in Bonbon’s nature to struggle to be more humanlike and not because it actually cared for her, but like she said—she still appreciated the notion.
Michiko placed a ghostly white hand on the golden of her doorknob. It might’ve felt cool to the touch if she was alive. Maybe she’d take a rest. Ah, but then Yidhra might infiltrate her dreams again, and the witch was never pleasant about it. She relished in showing Michiko things from when she’d been alive; unpleasant things. Things she would rather wipe clean from her memory than have it etched inside her mind forever.
But she was tired. She sighed and twisted the doorknob, pushing it open.
“Ah, you’ve finally arrived. You kept me waiting quite a bit, I’ll have you know.”
Ceramic clinked. Mary’s ever-relaxed eyes met Michiko’s.
Michiko caught her breath, sidling into her room and shutting the door behind her softly. She’d built her room to remodel her home back in Eversleeping Town, tatami mats and futons included. (What a bad choice. With every time she returned to it, the more her sickening past revolted her.) In the middle of the room, situated on the low bamboo table, a tea party welcomed her. From the ivy teapots and matching teacups to the three-tier cake stand with an assortment of snacks she couldn’t identify—the clash between cultures of her room and the setup on the table could’ve given her whiplash, but Mary sat on one of the cushions, sitting not in a seiza but both knees bent diagonally in the same direction, smiling with that light, yet somehow smug air.
Ah, not again.
She breathed, smile adorning her lips.
“You never said you were coming, Mary.” Michiko moved towards the bamboo table, before kneeling down on her calves in a seiza, like she always would, onto the cushion opposite Mary’s. “I appreciate your efforts, but you should have told me sooner. I would have prepared something.”
Mary waved a hand. “As much as you’re a darling, I don’t have any inclination towards that matcha you’re so insisted on making for every single guest you have. You would be the guest today.”
“Oh, I’d be a guest? Invited to my own room?” Michiko smiled, tinged with a humoured look.
“Of course.” Mary’s eyes roamed over the room, smile slowly faltering. “I must say—I really wouldn’t stay in this room if I had to. Sitting in this position is deplorable.”
Michiko folded her hands on her lap, leaving the steaming cup of tea in front of her untouched. Mary must’ve just poured it before she came in. She couldn’t recognise its scent, but it wasn’t green tea. “I apologise for your discomfort. If you’d like to relocate elsewhere, then…”
Mary scoffed, daintily picking her teacup up again by its small handle, other hand poised underneath it as if she might spill some of it. “Didn’t I just say you’re the guest today? Goodness. Also, there isn’t a need for you to pretend to be so accommodating with me. You’re not being employed for any of the services you were when you were alive.”
With her hands feeling too idle, Michiko finally lifted one, fingers dancing around the edge of the saucer. “I’m not pretending,” she insisted, smile stiffening again. She was losing her touch. “Your comfort is my utmost priority. Any guest’s comfort is my utmost priority.”
Mary rolled her eyes. In a casual, playful way: “You really are stubborn, aren’t you?”
Stubborn. That wasn’t a term normally used to describe a geisha. They’d always been taught to be subservient; stubborn was almost never associated with subservient, but they weren’t mutually exclusive, Michiko supposed. She wrapped her fingers around the handle delicately and lifted it, taking a whiff of the aroma. Unfamiliar, but still pleasant. Mary always had a gift for fine things.
She was gifted in a lot of ways, actually. Like chasing down survivors. Something Michiko had once been good at, too.
“It’s earl grey tea,” Mary told her unprompted, taking a biscuit off the cake stand between two fingers.
“Whatever you prepare is delightful, Mary,” Michiko said earnestly.
“Of course. I don’t doubt that.” She nipped off half of the biscuit, chewing it a couple times before swallowing. Michiko stared into the surface of the burnt orange colour, her image hazily reflected. “The match just now certainly was something. It’s infuriating how many of those silly guns they can buy.”
“It is quite unpleasant,” Michiko agreed shortly. She lifted the rim to her lips and tilted the tea into her mouth. Warm.
She expected Mary to follow up with something, but she didn’t. Mary only popped in the last half of the biscuit into her mouth, coughed and cleared her throat as she often did, holding a fist up to her mouth, then took another drink from her teacup while examining the nails of her free hand. Michiko placed the teacup back after barely a sip and observed the biscuit and treats Mary had prepared, no doubt delicious, and something she was probably undeserving of after her poor performance during the pack hunters match just now.
Speaking of the pack hunters match.
“I should apologise for my behaviour just now,” Michiko began, clasping her hands on her lap again.
“Hmm? There’s nothing to apologise for.”
“No, I—” Her voice was rising. Michiko cleared her throat and tried to settle herself down, fingernails plucking at the fabric of her kimono. “During the match, the results I produced were less than favourable. I fear that if it hadn’t been you I was partnered with, it most likely would’ve ended in a loss. And I—well, I was a baggage, if I may put it so crudely. I apologise for you having to deal with that, and I’ll be sure to not—”
Mary raised a brow. “Like I said, there’s nothing to apologise for.”
“Mary,” it sounded so strained, she felt like she was going to morph any second, “you’re being too forgiving, I believe. It’s a team effort. I wasn’t being useful. I was just being in the way!”
Silence followed, and more words threatened to spill out of her, but she kept them to herself. That was going overboard. It was quiet to the point where the crunch Mary took out of another biscuit was deafening.
Elbow on the table, Mary rested a cheek in her palm and tapped a finger against her temple.
“Hm. I suppose you were in the way, if you put it that way.”
Although that was what Michiko had been trying to prove, her heart still sank like a rock when she heard those words. She was in the way again. Of course. That’s why he had gotten rid of her all those years ago. “Y-Yes, that’s why… I won’t do as badly next time—”
“There’s no issue. If you do badly next time, or the time after, or forevermore, it doesn’t matter.” Mary slid another biscuit off the cake stand, balancing it between two fingers. “I’m not angry. There’s no reason to be. I’m a queen. I don’t create problems, I solve them.”
“I, I—but—” Michiko gurgled, and in her flurry of desperation, she didn’t know when, but her dainty fingers had sharpened into razor-like claws, and when she reached up to smooth her hair back, the back of her hand bumped into a horn on her forehead. “it was MY FAULT! i was BEING a nuisance!”
Mary was completely unfazed at this turn of events. “Calm down.”
The breath she let out was shaky and musty. “i’m sorry. don’t look. PLEASE.” She grappled for her fan to cover her face. Being looked at was disgusting—even worse when she was in this form.
“You are adorable either way.” Mary leaned forward. Michiko recoiled, hands searching for her fan frozen. “Also, I should inform you. Being a nuisance or being in the way unintentionally is not a crime, and I would never consider it so. You’re having a bad day, and having a bad day isn’t a sin anywhere. Rather, it’s someone’s imperfections that make them delightful.” She pressed the biscuit against Michiko’s mouth, and, frazzled, Michiko let her teeth catch onto it. “Alright?”
Michiko felt herself stabilising, and her claws had changed back into normal, pale hands again. “...Awlright,” she agreed, muffled by the biscuit.
Mary withdrew her hand, standing up. “Good girl.”
Michiko bit down on the biscuit. It was sweet.
Mary walked around the table, to Michiko’s side, then lowered herself to sit on her haunches. Her hands rose to clasp Michiko’s cheeks. Michiko blinked.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It is very difficult for me to watch a sweet young thing who always brings everyone refreshments struggling like this.”
Crunching down and swallowing the biscuit, Michiko puffed her cheeks. “Okay. Fine. I won’t be.”
“Getting cheeky, are we? Well, that’s better.” Mary smoothed her thumbs over Michiko’s face, then pressed a chaste, gentle kiss to her forehead. In the next moment, Mary’s touch had left her and she was standing a metre away. “I have a match to be in, now. They always call me.”
“Because you’re the best,” Michiko pointed out, no form of exaggeration in her words. She grinned, much unlike how a geisha was taught how to—genuinely. “Good luck.”
Mary spun, and with that, she disappeared.
Michiko picked up the teacup again.
Till death do us apart.
She was dead now. Would this still count as infidelity?
Taking a sip, her eyelids fluttered. The reflection in the tea looked much less repulsive to look at.
Michiko thought, and quite literally, that if she’d met Mary any earlier, Miles never would’ve even had the chance to hold a candle to the queen.