With my alarm now off, I stretched in bed and wished the morning wasn’t here quite yet, not wanting to crawl out from under my warm blankets. Alma was far less pleasant upon returning home than she was when we were out. My lessons were absolutely brutal, leaving me sore everywhere yet again. Today’s lesson with my employees was, unfortunately, taking place earlier than normal, so Brandon and Brenna would have time to get to some sort of joint job today. “Good morning, master. You seemed to sleep quite well, though I feel you could use a little more. Would you like me to inform the others that you’re too tired for exercise this morning?” asked Mila. “No, that will be quite alright. Thank you though, Mila.” I told her. “Portentia is already waiting in the evil twins’ gym, practicing acrobatics at the moment. I fear she’ll outstrip you in unarmed combat within the week, master, at her current rate. She really is relentless when she has a goal.” she stated. I shrugged, not really surprised. Portentia proved how fast she could learn when she mastered the staff in so little time. Given a month, she’d be an expert in numerous types of combat with ease. I truly was glad that she was getting use out of the extensive learning software available to everyone at my company, but I wished she showed signs of some more academic pursuits as well. Portentia didn’t really seem stupid to me, just unmotivated in that area.
As I showered, Mila played music for me, and I easily recognized several songs as performed by Aaliyah, though the songs themselves were new to me. If anyone could convince Portentia of the value of non-martial pursuits, Aaliyah could. “Mila, could you ask Aaliyah to speak with Portentia about learning a few things unrelated to combat. Maybe she can plan jobs that will broaden Portentia’s education,” I suggested. There was more to life than fighting people. I felt myself grimace as I remembered Portentia accidentally skewering herself. Though Portentia healed instantly, anyone else stabbed by that weapon of hers would be in real trouble. I really hoped she showed considerable restraint when out on her patrols. I considered going out with her sometime soon just to ease my own mind. “Master, you won’t have time to get dressed if you don’t end your shower immediately. No one else should get to see you naked.” warned Mila. My face grew hot. I knew Mila wasn’t remotely human, having her hardware contained within my car, but she was far too feminine for me to relish the idea of her watching me change. I quickly finished my shower and got dressed, feeling all too paranoid and chastising myself for it. Most people would probably find taking a shower before and after a workout wasteful, but showering really did help me wake up in the morning.
I jogged my way through my home and over to the twins’ wing where Emma, Brandon, and Brenna were already warming up. That was yet another advantage Portentia had over us. There was no such thing as a “warm up” or “risk of injury” with her. Her body always seemed ready for action. Soon after I started working through exercises with everyone, Ai, Mai, Jarod, and Duncan entered the room. I asked Emma to take over, so I could find out what was up. “James, nii-san was curious how soon you’d be awake, since he was interested in sampling one of Marco’s breakfasts.” explained Mai. “Mila told us you were in here, so we just had to come watch.” added Ai. Jarod was looking a bit tired, so I wondered how late the three had kept him up last night. “Oh. Sorry, Duncan, but we need to fit practice in right now. Brandon and Brenna”, I said, gesturing at the two, “have work early today.” He nodded and told me “I like that you teach your employees discipline. All four have excellent posture. Too bad that one doesn’t seem to participate.” The last he said as he looked at Jarod, who just smirked at him. “Jarod actually has a different teacher. He’s quite…” I started to say. Duncan interrupted me, saying, “What? He can’t keep up with your class?” I was about to say argue, feeling offended on Jarod’s behalf, when I heard Aaliyah say, “Jarod, get changed.” I was surprised when Jarod bowed to Aaliyah behind him and took off at a run.
“Nii-san, I hope you packed something fit for an exercise.” teased Ai. “We wouldn’t want your clothes torn.” claimed Mai. Then Alma, who apparently had walked in with Aaliyah, said, “Well, this should be entertaining.” Duncan appeared confused as he looked at her, so Alma told him “You just insulted Aaliyah’s sole student in front of her.” Last night, he had been quick to change the subject when he learned which Aaliyah was working for me. Now he got on his knees, bowed to my secretary, and said something in Japanese which I took for an apology. Not understanding the conversation, I excused myself to try getting something done before our practice was too interrupted. Still, I felt we had barely gotten anywhere when Jarod returned, bare-chested and wearing some form of baggy pants. Duncan had changed and returned much more swiftly, but his clothes were in this wing if he was staying with the twins. Plus, he surely moved as fast as his sisters. “Looks like we’ll be watching a demonstration of other forms of fighting.” I explained before asking everyone to join me by the wall. I hoped Jarod would do alright as I watched him and Duncan bow to one another. I had no doubt that Duncan was every bit as well-trained as his sisters, and I was certain he had some form of powerful magic in his arsenal. If there were any rules of engagement, no one mentioned them.
Duncan made the first move, and I was thankful to see that he wasn’t moving at his full speed as his punch came at Jarod’s chest. Jarod rotated around Duncan’s fist, slamming his own into Duncan’s neck as I stared in amazement and horror. Jarod was far faster than he used to be, but Duncan could have easily moved to dodge it with his speed. He seemed to be in shock as he dropped to the ground, as if he didn’t expect such a blow to even hurt. Jarod calmly stepped back and waited, seeming to expect more from his fallen opponent. I was impressed when Duncan rose to his feet again in under a minute, attacking slightly more swiftly and cautiously. He feinted several times, seeming to want to draw Jarod into bad positioning, but when he made a real attack, dodging Jarod’s kick and then kicking at Jarod’s knee, Jarod twisted his body through the air, kicking at Duncan’s head. Minute after minute passed with a series of near misses by Duncan and Jarod alike. I could tell Duncan was growing frustrated, and he started to move faster. I thought Jarod was in trouble when a kick came at him incredibly fast, but Duncan let out a short cry before holding his leg a moment later. Ai, Mai, and Alma were at Duncan’s side in the blink of an eye. Jarod simply bowed and left the room. I chased after him and asked “What did you do? How could you?”
Jarod shrugged and said, “I set him up and dislocated his knee. Part of Aaliyah’s teachings involve qì manipulation to increase the force of a hit as well as to take a hit more effectively. The stuff that’s possible is really incredible.” He was so calm about what had happened. I hadn’t meant “How could you?” in such a literal sense. I couldn’t imagine purposely giving someone such a severe injury. “qì” was a familiar idea to me, but I never put much stock in it, having never seen a valid demonstration of its use. “James, relax. They don’t stay injured like we do. If I hit a person’s throat like that, I would have damaged their larynx, probably killing them. I knew he’d be fine. Ai and Mai gave me quite a few pointers last night through text. They expected the fight.” Yet again, I found myself gaping. How evil could the twins be to set up their own brother? Yes, Duncan was being a bit of a jerk, but I felt this was a bit extreme. “Seriously, dude, relax. You’re freaking me out. Anyways, I’m going to shower and get changed before breakfast.” he told me. “Wait, were you wearing a suit?” I asked, only now realizing that he had dressed up again today. “Oh. Yeah. I found it in my room this morning. Was that from you?” I shook my head negatively. “Oh. Wasn’t from the twins either. Aaliyah or Alma then.” he decided. “Anyway, I’ll see you at breakfast.” he told me, walking off as I stared dumbly at him.
I walked back into the gym to find Duncan laughing as he sat upright on the floor. When he saw me, he said, “Sorry for getting a little excited there. It’s embarrassing to have so much trouble with a human. I’ll have to thank him later.” I was bewildered, so I asked “Thank him for what?” Alma, who didn’t look so amused, told me “For saving him from me. Cheating is forbidden, especially when it puts someone so valuable at risk.” Duncan’s smile faded as he nodded at Alma. Aaliyah whispered something in Duncan’s ear, and his face became even more somber. She, however, was just grinning, and Alma actually laughed. I noticed Emma staring between Alma and Aaliyah, obviously confused as well. “We did warn you, nii-san.” stated the twins in unison. “No one around here is normal, even the humans.” claimed Mai. “James has a most interesting household.” added Ai. Alma nodded before saying, “So you can tell your mother one of the reasons I’m here.” Duncan’s smile looked less than convincing as he gazed up at her. Then he turned his head to Brandon and asked what he could do. Brandon gladly demonstrated, causing his arms to bulge with muscle and grow in size, giving him an ape-like appearance. Brenna then changed her hair to black and tanned her skin. “She thinks she’s only quasi-soulless.” claimed Ai, making Brenna roll her eyes. Looking up at Portentia, Duncan asked “And you?” She shrugged and said, “I’m invincible.”
Duncan laughed and Alma said, “That’s untested, but she does heal far more quickly than anyone else I’ve encountered. She also mastered the staff well enough to keep up with your sisters in a week.” Nodding, Duncan told Portentia “Perhaps I can duel with you in a couple days after I’ve healed.” Looking up at Emma, Duncan said, “I’ve heard remarkable things about you. I would love getting a tour of the gardens if you don’t mind.” Emma hesitated a moment before saying, “Umm.. sure. Okay.” Duncan reached his hand toward me, so I helped him onto his good foot, impressed that he’d be standing so quickly. “If you’re still hungry, we usually eat in the kitchen, honestly, but we can eat in the dining hall if you’d prefer.” I told him. “As the saying goes, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’.” responded Duncan, giving me a smile. While we all walked to the kitchen, Duncan spoke to his sisters in Japanese, already limping along. Seeing how serious Ai and Mai appeared, I felt a bit worried. Those two were so rarely serious about anything that their lack of a smile seemed ominous. Aaliyah was giddily telling Emma about playing video games with her father last night, obviously not concerned though she surely knew what was being said. Of course, when did Aaliyah ever truly get concerned about anything? I was tempted to ask Alma, but I doubted she’d be forthcoming. My life truly had become complicated.