Best Friend For Hire, Entry 320

“Are you sure about this? You really don’t have to go.” I assured Portentia.

She took her bag from my hand, laughing as she said, “I’ve been hired, James. I accepted the job, and I’m going. Don’t worry so much! This won’t take long.”

I held back a sigh. Alma had hired Portentia to chase after Maxine and dismantle her criminal network. I didn’t doubt Portentia would’ve gone for free, but Alma was probably paying her a hefty sum. Personally, I was against it. Yes, Maxine was problematic. I didn’t agree with her outlook or her methods, but I did feel her intentions were decent. If good intentions was no longer enough to let someone live peacefully, then I should be at war with my own fiancée. We certainly didn’t see eye-to-eye on everything.

As misguided as Maxine’s attempt to save me from the Slayers was, she did have a point about their behavior. The family was influential and powerful in a very lethal way. Their infighting was disruptive to the global economy as holdings could shift based on fighting prowess rather than business merit.

Alma took my hand and said, “Don’t worry, my love. I’m confident Portentia will be finished in time for our wedding.”

I nodded. She was passively watching as Portentia stepped into the limo. A short ride, a relatively quick flight in Alma’s private jet, and Portentia would be causing trouble for Maxine. I hoped the criminals around here didn’t get word of the city’s superhero being away.

“If they do, you can be a good sidekick and tell them to behave.” commented Aaliyah as she stepped out from behind Alma.

“If who does what?” inquired Alma, looking down at her.

“Aaliyah’s suggesting that I do a bit of crime fighting on Portentia’s behalf while she’s gone.” I explained.

She rolled her eyes as she gazed up at me, but she was smiling. “You worry too much. With Jarod’s suit and her weapon, Portentia is more than a match for Maxine. She’ll finish promptly and return.” she insisted.

“Don’t forget my daughter’s help!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

“Mila will surely be invaluable.” agreed Alma.

“You’ll have to get used to this, boss-man, sir. Employees will need to fly away at times if you’re going to expand, and you simply must expand.” stated Aaliyah.

“Why?” I asked. “Aren’t I doing well enough?”

She grinned at me and said, “I’ve already made some arrangements on your behalf. I can cancel them if you want, but Best Friend For Hire isn’t really about you, is it? I thought you wanted a job where you could make a difference in the lives of others.”

I nodded. “Yes, I do want to make a difference.” I agreed.

“James, I understand that you trust her, but shouldn’t you look into these arrangements of hers before deciding?” inquired Alma.

I shrugged and said, “If she wants me to know, she’ll tell me. If she doesn’t, I wouldn’t be able to understand the paperwork even with Mila’s aid. I’ve told you before that she’s the one with actual power.”

“You’re still the boss, boss-man, sir.” insisted Aaliyah with a giggle. “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll start the arrangements!”

Looking to Alma, I said, “There’s another side of my argument. She already knows what I want, so the arrangements are made to get me there. I don’t have the knowledge or the wisdom to question her judgement on what is best.”

“I do hope you know marriage will change us. I don’t plan to be separated more often than not as is normal for my family, so we’ll both have to grow accustomed to proper discussion over big decisions.” she replied, staring into my eyes.

“Planning on us merging businesses as well?” I asked.

“Well, no.” she replied.

“Then you really don’t need to worry over how mine is run. I’m confident things will continue to go well.” I told her.

Aaliyah giggled as she said, “You have no idea how well.”

Alma’s gaze shifted to her, and I wondered what was going through her mind. She had seen a glimpse of what Aaliyah could do. I wondered if Aaliyah would ever let her see more. I rubbed my aching head, pushing the thought of what I had seen back again. There was just too much of Aaliyah for my poor, little mind.

Hearing the door open, I turned to find Mila standing there in one of her maid outfits. There were subtle differences between them.

“Master, your appointment is nearly here. Do you intend to greet her personally?” she asked.

I shrugged and said, “Might as well.”

She gave a small nod, curtsied, and went back inside.

“What appointment?” inquired Alma.

“Another applicant. A fair number are getting through Aaliyah and Mila’s combined scrutiny lately.” I explained.

“How do you feel Dejon is doing?” she questioned.

I shrugged and told her “Cosette was happy with his performance the other day, and Mila has told me that he is studying with almost as much fervor as Jemal. I think he’ll work out.”

She nodded.

“You were hoping he’d fail, so you could poach him.” I inferred.

Her lip twitched just before she said, “Maybe. You must admit that his magic is useful.”

“No, darling. I refuse to ever admit such a thing.” I half-teased. I still didn’t like the idea of him using his gift very often.

“You two are soooo mushy that you might as well get married.” stated Aaliyah with a sigh.

“Ha. You’re not going to take credit for this too?” replied Alma wryly.

“I can if you want!” exclaimed the tiny girl. “You know I’ve given James advice about you, right? I mean, I have been helping you both out.”

Sighing, Alma looked down at her and said, “I do at times realize why James doesn’t bother questioning you more thoroughly. I don’t actually want to know to what you are referring.”

Grinning back, Aaliyah told her “You have a number of ideas in your head, so you know well enough without me.”

“Behave, you two. My potential new hire has arrived.” I playfully chided as I watched the distant gate open.

“She left. Have you ever tried working through the significance of her actions? Everything she says and does has a purpose.” insisted Alma.

“I know. I’ve considered some of her actions from time-to-time, but I don’t believe…” I started.

Interrupting me, Alma said, “Another girl? Should I start worrying about your fondness for beautiful women?”

I leaned down, kissed her head, and assured her “You know better.”

“James, not in front of the new hire.” she rebuked.

“Yes, dear.” I told her as dryly as I could manage.

Smiling up at me, she lightly punched my arm before saying, “I’ll leave you to it then.”

Her hand left mine, and I found myself instantly missing her. Since our engagement became official, we spent far more time together than we had before, despite my lessons in magic from her coming to an end. My intense studies of magic through the virtual grimoire had boosted my skill enough that Alma no longer seemed inclined to attempt showing me anything new there, though we did spar almost nightly still. Despite our closeness, I still felt we had too little time to ourselves. Our honeymoon after the wedding would lend us some quality alone time, but I was already certain our honeymoon would feel too short.

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Best Friend For Hire, Entry 315

“Welcome home.” stated Alma as I walked into the room. She was busily working on several computers via spells while texting on her phone with one hand and holding Caladfwlch with the other.

“Aren’t you supposed to be taking the day off, so you don’t appear to be in two places at once?” I asked.

“Mila’s routing this through my home network for me, and I’m being careful not to cross paths with my past self. I do remember what I’ve done, darling.” she replied. “Before you ask, no, I haven’t made any real progress determining what to get Portentia yet. I am looking.” The last was said while holding her phone for me to see.

“I don’t know if we’d be able to find clothing that Portentia actually likes. Her tastes are a bit unique.” I told her, remembering how she reacted to the dresses she had tried for my birthday party.

“Yes-yes, but I could could always make a variation of these designs to better fit her needs. I’m sure she won’t protest to looking less like a hermit as long as the clothing is comfortable, durable, and allows for movement.” she argued.

“I suppose. If we fail to provide something she likes, we can always do something else for her.” I suggested.

“I will find something. Just let me know if you come up with any good ideas.” she insisted. Then she suddenly thrust Caladfwlch toward me.

“Already tired of your family’s sword?” I asked.

“We were fine until you returned. As we’ve been speaking, the sword’s been growing heavier. I can also feel it wanting to go to you. I’ve tried communicating with it off and on, but all I ever receive are somewhat vague impressions from it.” she explained.

Taking hold of the sword, I sighed before telling her “And here I hoped we’d be able to get it to sing.”

Alma frowned, staring up at me.

“Sorry. I’m not the one who is disappointed that a sword won’t speak to me.” I teased. Seeing her cross her arms, I quickly told her “I am glad that you tried. At least we can guess that it can’t speak.”

“Right. Well, I have much to do. The others haven’t seen Caladfwlch yet. I’m leaving that to you.” she informed me, turning back to her computers.

I leaned down and kissed the top of her head. Then I said, “Let me know if you desire any company while you’re avoiding time off.”

“Thank you. I will.” she told me, sounding happier.

Instead of heading to the ballroom to see if anyone was gaming in there, I checked with Mila to see where Jarod was as soon as I was out of Alma’s wing.

“He’s in the lab, master.” she replied.

“Is Aurora with him?” I asked.

“Yes, master. He’s having her look over the design for his new power converter.” she explained.

“Ah. I can’t imagine her telling anyone about my new friend here, so I guess that doesn’t hurt.” I admitted.

“If she tried, very few are likely to guess what she means.” agreed Mila.

I jogged over to the lift and jumped down, since Mila already had it descending for me.

Jarod glanced up and then stared at me. “What is that he asked after a moment?” he asked, pointing to the sword.

“Caladfwlch.” I replied, pulling it out. The flame from the chimeras blazed forth, igniting the blade into its extraordinary glow.

“Master, Aurora knows.” stated Mila, sounding amused.

“Knows what precisely?” I asked.

“She brought up stories of Arthur and Excalibur when Jarod asked about the sword.” replied Mila.

“Is Aurora interested in myths?” I asked, looking over at Jarod.

“Myths!?” he exclaimed. “How can you hold that sword and call it a myth!?”

I shrugged and said, “Some myths were based on fact, but that doesn’t mean they get the details right.”

“Neither does the news, but people still quote it as fact.” he retorted wryly.

“Touché.” I replied. “Still, I wonder how she figured it out that fast.”

“She’s brilliant and has an incredible memory.” explained Jarod. “How did you get that? Can I hold it?” he inquired, shielding his eyes as he tried looking at the sword.

I nodded, handing the sword over to him. The light went out, and he dropped it immediately. For a fraction of a second, there had been a sort of pressure against my mind, like something trying to communicate telepathically, but the feeling was gone. I quickly caught the sword before it hit the ground.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, stepping back as Aurora ran up to him.

“I heard something like a growl in my head. Maybe not a growl, really, but the same sort of malice was there.

I found the idea that Caladfwlch didn’t like Jarod to be preposterous, but I wasn’t coming up with any other theories.

“Hello?” asked Jarod, answering his phone. “Really!?” he asked, absently patting Aurora’s head.

She was hugging him while periodically squinting at the sword in my hand.

I sheathed it. Having heard Mai telling Jarod that Muramasa was glowing, I wondered if Caladfwlch somehow knew that Jarod had Muramasa. “Interesting.” I commented.

“Yeah. We’ll come up.” stated Jarod before hanging up. Then he told me “I don’t think our swords like each other.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you.” I admitted.

“Aurora, go back to work. I’ll be back.” stated Jarod as he pointed to her station.

She stood there, staring at him.

“Oh, fine. I suppose it is time they meet you.” he told her.

“I seem to recall Alma needing something.” I teased, looking away from him.

“Ha ha.” he muttered. “You’ve gotta be interested in seeing what’s happening.”

“Yes. I do.” I replied, following him onto the lift with Aurora close behind.

As we rose, Aurora tentatively poked Caladfwlch. I moved the sword, positioning the hilt toward her and was surprised she actually drew it. A faint light emanated from the blade, so I guessed my sword liked her. I quickly snatched the sword, returning it to my sheath, when she moved to poke the ground. I didn’t really want a hole there. I shook my head when she looked up at me with a frown, but I didn’t have a clue how to explain to her how dangerous this blade could be. I was going off rumor, of course, but I had no doubt that the sword’s ability to cut would match Muramasa or Midnight. We jogged over to the East wing and headed inside.

Ai looked ready to say something when the door opened, but her mouth snapped shut as she stared at Aurora. When she glanced at me, she suddenly curtsied.

With a groan, I said, “Please don’t.”

“Lady Pendreigh would be displeased if I failed to meet basic propriety, your worship.” she insisted with a mischievous grin.

“Aurora, this is my wife, Ai.” stated Jarod, gesturing toward her. “Aurora’s my lab assistant.”

Aurora saluted, and I found myself wondering again what being inside her head was like.

Mai came running around the corner and grabbed Jarod, pulling him away.

Ai stepped closer to Aurora, took the hand that was pointing at Mai, and said, “You’re beautiful, aren’t you. I want to hear everything you do with my husband in the lab.”

“Aurora doesn’t talk.” I informed her.

“Oh? A lab assistant that doesn’t talk. Care to explain?” she told me, sounding like she was giving me an order.

I pulled out Caladfwlch and said, “I must be off. I’m on a mission.” When Ai looked away from the light, I grabbed Aurora, lifted her in one arm, and ran after Jarod.

“James!” called Ai as she chased us.

Muramasa was sitting on the table in the war room. I wouldn’t have said the sword was glowing precisely, but the area around it seemed untouched by Caladfwlch’s light. The distortion from Muramasa actually reminded me of Raine. Perhaps the Slayers weren’t far off when they called it The Demon Blade.

Jarod picked the blade up, and I could hear its song of battle. As always, Muramasa was ready to kill. Equally apparent was the calm of Caladfwlch, a sense of patience.

I wasn’t prepared to see Jarod toss Muramasa toward me. What was he doing? Should I dodge? No. Ai sounded too close. What if she touched the blade!? I quickly set Aurora to the side. Then I grabbed Muramasa’s handle, turned to Jarod, and asked “What are you doing!? This sword’s too dangerous.”

“Huh?” he asked looking at me like I was being crazy. “I knew you’d catch it, and it wouldn’t hurt you even if you stopped it with your palm. I wanted to see what would happen if you held them both. Seems like they’re both happy enough to me. Show off.”

He wasn’t wrong about how the swords were reacting in my hands, but I still felt that was reckless. I handed his sword back to him as I said, “Don’t offend the sword either. They obviously can be touchy.”

“Fair point.” he replied, nodding as he set Muramasa back on the table.

“Is that really safe?” I asked.

Jarod hugged Mai and said, “My wife likes keeping it close to hand.”

“The whispering can be a bit distracting at times, but I think the sword’s happier nearby.” explained Ai.

“Now tell me about Aurora.” stated Mai.

I turned to see Aurora looking back and forth between the twins.

“Pardon, but Cosette is asking if she and Raine may enter.” stated Mila.

“Whoa. You two reintegrated Mila?” I asked the twins.

“Jarod insisted.” stated Ai.

Then Mai said, “Please let them in.”

Guessing those two had noticed us running past the ballroom on our way, I felt there were quite a few questions about to be asked. I quietly apologized to Alma, thinking I’d be quite a while before stopping in to visit her.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 314

“What’s the time?” I asked when Aaliyah dropped us off in my office, having given our farewells at Alma’s home.

“Two minutes after you left, boss-man, sir.” replied Aaliyah, grinning up at me.

“What? How can I possibly explain doing work from there and here at the same time?” inquired Alma.

“Celebrate your day off!” exclaimed Aaliyah as she raised her hands in the air as if she was cheering. “James, on the other hand, has a job soon.”

“Oh. I figured that would be cancelled.” I admitted.

Alma looked shocked as she said, “Day off? I can’t possibly afford a full day off. There is still so very much to do.”

“Master, should I place your rings in the vault for now?” asked Mila.

“Oh, sure! Thank you.” I told her as one of her bodies walked into the room.

She took each of our rings, placing them into a container she carried, and then left without another word.

“James, help me here.” demanded Alma.

“What? You have a day off. You can’t possibly complain about gaining time. Read, play some games, or anything else that entertains you. I’ll join you when I return home.” I assured her.

“If this happens too often, we’re going to look ancient far before our time.” she complained.

Aaliyah giggled.

“Well, perhaps I will. Going off Hyun-Woo, I’m sure you’ll still look young for many years.” I argued.

“You don’t really expect to grow old, do you?” asked Aaliyah.

“Pardon?” I replied.

At the same time, Alma stepped backward as she said, “I should hope we have long lives.”

“Oh, you will, but aging… that’s funny. How old do you think the fey in the forest are? Any of them seem old to you?” inquired Aaliyah.

“I am not a fey.” stated Alma.

“Your fey blood is far stronger than you realize. Emma will age very slowly compared with most everyone here, but your connection is even stronger.” argued Aaliyah.

“I don’t have any fey blood.” I stated, finding myself imagining what it’d be like to watch Alma stay young as I grew older and older.

“Aww… don’t worry, boss-man, sir. You’d have to drain yourself of energy to pull off aging even a second.” she assured me.

“This can’t be true.” argued Alma. “Yes, some of my family have lived into their hundreds, but they do die in time.”

“Not you.” stated Aaliyah.

“How can you be certain?” demanded Alma.

“Because Death really does know when everyone will die.” I told her. “You should accept it.”

She sighed, frowning at me.

“I can’t tell you why I’m certain, but I have good reason.” Turning to Aaliyah and patting her head, I asked “Am I right?”

“Of course, boss-man, sir. I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I didn’t know simple things like when someone will die. Imagine how late I’d be running all the time!” she exclaimed, smiling up at me.

“You are aware that Aaliyah has no qualms about lying, are you not?” asked Alma. “She could simply sense when someone dies. You’re quite well aware of how quick she is.”

Aaliyah grinned at Alma as she said, “Admitting that there’s a reason for me to visit the dead?”

Alma looked uncomfortable for a moment.

“I’m also aware of when she lies, just as I’m aware when anyone else lies.” I admitted. “I thought you had figured that out.”

“I admit that you do seem rather good at determining who’s lying these days. You weren’t always.” she insisted.

“When I… changed, the ability was vastly heightened.” I told her.

“She has ways of avoiding magic.” argued Alma.

“Yes, and I’m sure she can avoid mine as well. Still, I believe her. How will we even go in public ten years from now?” I marveled. My parents would certainly be shocked by this.

“Illusions?” suggested Alma. “There are spells my family members have used for such purposes.”

“They do work for that necromancer.” I admitted, frowning as I thought of him.

“Yes. His were exceptional.” she agreed.

“Well, you two have time to get even better!” exclaimed Aaliyah.

I nodded, still wrapping my head around the idea of an exceptionally long life. Would I grow as old as Ariadne? What of Zachary and his brothers?

“Zachary’s actually the youngest.” pointed out Aaliyah. “You have to admit that they’ve seen some marvelous things throughout their years.”

“Oh? Did they show you anything of interest?” asked Alma.

“Nothing that you can report to Adelmar.” I replied.

She frowned. “James, we are to be married. Do you really trust me so little?” she asked.

“I’ve learned that you are very loyal to your family, and don’t always wish to burden you with more secrets.” I replied.

“I’d rather know than not, but I can appreciate your warnings on what cannot be shared.” she told me, not fully being earnest.

“See, you weren’t entirely honest there.” I teased.

“I’ll have to be more careful around you, won’t I.” she stated, but she smiled beautifully as she did. “Perhaps I should have said that I can grow to appreciate the warnings.”

“Much better.” I acknowledged, smiling back.

Aaliyah sighed and said, “You two love birds need to confirm plans for Alma’s birthday, although I should point out that Portentia’s birthday is on the same day.”

“What!? Really?” asked Alma.

“Yes. She was born four years before you.” replied Aaliyah. She then looked up at me and said, “While we’re on the topic of birthdays, Adelmar sent a card, thanking you for the gift we sent. His birthday was on the seventeenth.”

I was very glad she had taken care of sending him something, but I didn’t want to admit that I had missed not only the day but sending the gift in front of Alma. “I’m glad he was pleased with it.” I told her.

“You should save it, James.” suggested Alma. “Mail from the head of my family is exceedingly rare, especially these days.”

I did my best not to frown as I wondered what I was going to get Alma. I had forgotten her birthday was coming up. I needed to get something for Portentia as well.

“Will you mind spending part of the day with Portentia?” I asked.

“Of course not. We do get along.” insisted Alma. “Any idea what to get her? Mila normally gives me more notice.”

I would admit that Alma seemed less judgemental of Portentia’s role as a superhero these days.

“Sorry, Lady Pendreigh.” apologized Mila.

“No need to be sorry. I am just surprised is all.” replied Alma.

“Like a birthday surprise type of surprised?” asked asked Aaliyah.

“Ha ha.” stated Alma, rolling her eyes.

“We could go with more tickets to sidekick for her.” I suggested with a shrug.

Alma sighed and said, “Though I have no doubt she would be perfectly happy with such a gift, I cannot approve of it. Surely we can come up with something she’d enjoy which would not have us frolicking about the town in a costume.”

“Are you planning on us always sending gifts as a couple from here on out?” I inquired, enjoying the idea.

“Oh. I suppose I am getting ahead of myself.” replied Alma, actually blushing.

“No. You really aren’t.” I assured her, taking her hand as I bent down to kiss it. “I love the thought of having you tormented with me over what to buy.”

“I see. My fiancée is already plotting to have me tormented.” teased Alma.

“Just a bit when you’re in the mood.” I replied, attempting to sound sincere.

Arching her eyebrow, she asked “A mood to be tormented? What a strange person you think me.”

“Strange enough to marry me for sure.” I told her. “Any suggestions, Aaliyah?”

Mila quickly spoke up, saying, “Master, mother felt you two weren’t in need of a fourth wheel while flirting and took off. Luckily for you both, she didn’t deny me the opportunity to join you if you’re fine with a third wheel.”

“Do you have any suggestions, Mila?” asked Alma.

“Of course, though I’m disinclined to reveal them until I’ve settled on what I’m getting her.” she replied.

“I see.” replied Alma, twisting her lips in thought. She then pulled me down to her and kissed my cheek before saying, “You best be off, or you’ll be late. I can use my… day off… to consider our options.”

I nodded, saying, “Yes, dear.”

She must have noticed my put-upon tone, because she hit my arm just after I said it.

I took off Caladfwlch and handed it over to her. “Mind holding onto this while I’m working? I don’t believe it wants left alone again.” I told her.

She nodded, staring at the sword in surprise as she held it.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“James, Caladfwlch still shines!” she exclaimed, staring up at me. “Not as brightly by any means, but the sword shines!”

“Why wouldn’t Caladfwlch accept Arthur’s descendent, especially one as splendid as you?” I inquired. “Besides, you shouldn’t feel bad. That’s about how the sword looked when Arthur held it.” I assured her with a wink.

Her mouth actually dropped open, and I ran out before she could say anything more. I was certain now that Aaliyah wouldn’t mind me saying that much. Something had changed between the two of them, or Aaliyah wouldn’t have allowed Alma to skip signing a contract. Things were looking magnificent.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 313

By the time the sun was rising, Alma had given me the basic tour of her home, though I was certain a great number of hidden passages were left out. After the tour, she insisted on doing some work to “clear her morning”. I excused myself to wander the grounds a bit, not wanting to try playing games on her backup computer. I was sure the machine was considered top of the line, but everything seemed far too slow, having grown accustomed to Mila easily keeping up.

Everywhere I had gone, the land was vibrant with plants bearing fruits. I wondered if Alma would bother with some cover up or if she would just let people jump to their own conclusions. I was quite certain there would be some very confused botanists visiting the area.

“Your majesty, the items you required are ready for your inspection.” stated Sebastian.

“Thank you. Please, lead the way.” I told him, still feeling annoyed that he refused to stop calling me that. Before I even stood, I felt a buzzing in my pocket, so I took a look at my phone after rising.

“You should take one of my bodies along next time, so we can really have fun with the staff.” declared Mila in a text. “I would gladly demonstrate the type of service to which you are accustomed.”

I told her “That would be amusing.” I wasn’t sure Alma would be too thrilled with the idea of her staff seeing Mila dressed as a maid, given the acute similarities in their appearance. Furthermore, I worried that Mila’s flirtations might get out of hand and cause all sorts of gossip. Alma would not be amused if that were to occur.

When we reached the materials, I was plenty happy with them, but I had no doubt that I would be. Alma’s standards were exceedingly high for many things, and her staff was surely aware of it.

After thanking Sebastian, I excused myself to check on Alma, but she was still typing away with spells on numerous keyboards as she fiddled with her phone by hand. “Have much left?” I inquired.

“Always, darling, but I can excuse myself if you are ready to begin.” she replied.

“Well, Sebastian has already procured everything we’ll need, so we might as well.” I informed her.

She smiled and said, “Excellent. Give me thirty seconds. I’m quite interested in seeing what sorts of spells are utilized in your craft.”

“About that… will you be completely disappointed if there is something for you to sign?” I inquired. Seeing her smile fade, I quickly told her “Sorry, but there are reasons, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“This is precisely why I worried about her getting involved in your life.” she stated.

“Still worried about her?” I questioned, surprised by her statement. I felt Aaliyah more than proved herself to be our ally.

“Always. As fantastic as she can be, I know her mood can be mercurial, and there is nothing that will withstand her wrath.” stated Alma.

I smirked as I said, “I find her perfectly adorable.”

“You’ve seen her other side.” replied Alma, not amused.

“As I recall, everyone was a bit put off by her presence when I was fighting for your hand. She seemed fine by me.” I told her.

“Has she actually shown you what happens to someone killed by her scythe? I know she’s generally too quick, but she’s not above demonstrations.” explained Alma.

“Want one!?” asked Aaliyah, suddenly grinning up from between us.

“No.” replied Alma. “Never again.”

“No promises.” replied Aaliyah with a wink. “I brought the paperwork for you!”

“Lovely. Was I saying too much?” she asked.

“No, Alpy. James is more aware of who I am than anyone else alive today, including Carl, and that’s really saying something.” she replied, sounding giddy.

“Please excuse my disbelief.” stated Alma as she started perusing the “paperwork” on the tablet Aaliyah had brought.

“I can’t explain yet, but I’ve seen her. Really seen her, not how she is now or as Death. She’s magnificent, I assure you.” I insisted, though my head started to ache just thinking back on it. My mind was burning through energy to move faster and faster, but it wasn’t enough.

“Don’t worry, boss-man, sir. She’ll know well enough one day.” promised Aaliyah as she smiled at me.

I felt at peace as I saw her smile, and I stopped thinking about what I had seen. The headache left me.

“If she’s truly that magnificent, then why must her infernal contracts be quite so complicated?” demanded Alma. “Surely, she could have me promise not to tell and accept that my word would suffice.”

“As you wish.” replied Aaliyah, taking the tablet back.

“What? Are you serious?” asked Alma.

Aaliyah nodded and said, “Uh huh. We’ll be boring this time.”

“But what about…” started Alma.

“I trust you.” stated Aaliyah, interrupting her.

“I haven’t even promised anything yet.” argued Alma.

“And I trust you.” replied Aaliyah. “Have fun!”

“She’s messing with me again.” insisted Alma as she looked around. “The bloody girl is playing another of her games.”

Aaliyah was gone in Alma’s mind. I knew otherwise. I had seen part of her, stretching on and on beyond my senses. I turned my mind to the task at hand as the headache was coming back again. There was simply too much information for my mind in its current state, and I was not remotely capable of processing everything when I was greatly enhanced.

I hugged my fiancée and kissed her head. “Shall we get started?” I asked, taking her hand and pulling her along.

As we ran past the materials Sebastian had brought, I used a spell to pull them after us. Alma sealed the room with spells before she opened the entrance to the subterranean home of her father. We descended, greeting him upon arriving.

I started explaining what precisely we’d be doing and quickly found that Alma had more knowledge than I initially had regarding metalsmithing and metallurgy. She was a bit dubious about the alloy I proposed, but she let that slide. When I demonstrated spells, however, she had a great many questions.

“This part here looks like something I’ve seen in a book on the dark arts.” she insisted as she pointed.

“I’m sure it’s similar, but we’ll be using that bit to identify one another.” I explained.

“James, this probably isn’t wise.” she argued.

“I swear on my life that this is perfectly safe. I know in great detail what every part of these spells does.” I assured her.

“How could you possibly know what every part does? No one does. We simply know the rough purpose of any given pattern we use, but I’ve demonstrated to you the disastrous results that can happen when attempting to alter patterns as well as combinations we know to be disastrous.” she told me.

I sighed, dismantled my spell, and recreated her demonstration. Then I went about explaining the differences between the subtle alterations she had made when demonstrating this to me. To seal the point, I told her precisely what would happen when I altered part of the symbol in another way and unleashed the spell, causing waves of fire to erupt from a point in a plane above us.

Her father seemed amused, but she did not.

“You’ve obviously done that before, so knowing what will happen isn’t that impressive.” she argued, being stubborn.

“Yes, but I’ve also studied, as I’ve told you before, from a book of sorts which I can’t share with you yet. Trust me. These spells we’ll be using are perfectly safe for this use.” I insisted. “I’ve been studying magic a great deal since I enhanced Jarod’s suits.”

I didn’t want to explain that these particular spells had Aaliyah’s assurances, knowing that she still seemed to have a grudge against my tiny secretary. She still had no clue how much Aaliyah knew about magic, and I couldn’t tell her that yet either.

“Fine. What is this supposed to do?” she asked.

“We’ll be using the part that reminds you of necromancy to identify one another, so the rings will react to us. If you prefer, we could tie the rings to each other and leave things at that, but I thought a little extra information would be nice.” I told her.

“What sort of information?” she inquired.

“We’ll not only know precisely in what direction the other is, but we’ll have a sense of distance as well. The rings will also pulse slightly in time with our heartbeats, so you’ll know if I’m alive and calm no matter where I am. Furthermore, the rings won’t function for anyone else.”

“All that from a bit of necromancy?” she asked.

“Well, more that the bit of necromancy will allow for it.” I told her.

“I can easily imagine some saying that feeling your partner’s heartbeat through a ring is a bit much.” she stated.

“Are you one of those people? Personally, I’ll find knowing with absolute certainty that you are alive to be wonderful.” I told her.

“You’ll also be able to avoid me when I’m angry. Nothing gets my heart pumping quite the same.” she muttered.

“I’ll know where to find you, so I can find out what’s wrong. Besides, I always know when you’re angry if I’m nearby. Your magic gives that away.” I replied.

“And what if I don’t want to be found because I might lash out at you?” she asked.

“Marriage isn’t a perfectly smooth ride for anyone. I’d rather know where to find you than be left wondering where you are.” I insisted. “There are also a number of protective spells I’d like us to place on the rings. I do need to warn you that undoing these spells is far more difficult than placing them. You could consider this an eternal bond if we go through with it.”

“I figured as much. Let’s do it. All of it. I find myself amused by the idea of always having your heart.” she teased.

“Well, there’s that too, but you don’t need a ring for it.” I assured her.

She smiled, so I continued explaining the plan. Then we started discussing patterns, coloration, engravings, and gemstone possibilities.

When we actually began our practice rings, I felt that Alma took to forging rings much more easily than I did. Unlike me, she was working with her eyes closed, relying completely on her ability to feel the heat. I had that advantage in having crafted this ring many times at Aaliyah’s insistence. Alma wasn’t the only one with extremely high standards.

Aaliyah was the one who told me how the spells would interact, tying our rings to the node of magic here, another spell I wasn’t to explain fully to Alma yet. I found the warnings against explaining certain things disheartening even after seeing Aaliyah let Alma get by without a contract. One month was all I had to wait before I could tell Alma everything. One more month of secrets.

Letting all of my extraneous thoughts drift away, I poured my concentration into getting the final ring absolutely perfect, since she’d be wearing it for the rest of her life. When I finished, I looked to see how she was progressing, smiling as I watched her work. The decorative engravings in the dark metal would be hard for most to notice at a glance, but I could see them clearly, a small depiction of herself dancing with me around the band, an eternal dance. To match her engagement ring’s flame, my ring had twin bands of rubies along the outside. I set sapphires in hers to match those in her engagement ring.

When at last she finished, she smiled up at me and said, “I think that went rather well.”

“Let’s hope you got the sizing right.” I teased. “They won’t come off easily, so we can’t try them on.”

Aaliyah had revealed to me more details as to how these rings would function, a way to circumvent the protective magic of my body. The “bit of necromancy”, as Alma had put it, tied these rings to our souls. Once accepted as part of me, my body wouldn’t try to counteract the spell. If I wanted, I could even enchant a suit to work for me now, but there was no need. Besides, Aaliyah had been very clear about the dangers of magic such as this, and I was certain that I’d never want to utilize it again. If Alma ever did want to leave me, Aaliyah would have to personally undo these spells.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 311

When the engagement ring was at last forged, I felt I should be sweating on principle. No one should labor that long within an active volcano and not sweat. Well, maybe the dragons, but I still felt they should acknowledge the heat in some way.

Before I could even admire the view for long, I found myself back in my office at home. “How much time has passed?” I asked.

“We were gone for a second here.” Aaliyah replied, grinning up at me. “Are you going to go give her the ring, or did you have something special planned?”

I stared into her big, blue eyes and wondered if I should be trying to plan something grand. “What do you think?” I asked, feeling a bit pathetic.

“You’re the boss, boss-man, sir.” she told me with a wink. Then she disappeared.

I frowned, staring at where she had been. What should I do? I looked down at the large ruby in the ring. “The Dragon’s Flame” I had dubbed it, having positioned it in the dragon’s mouth. Hopefully, Alma would approve. I designed the dragon to look somewhat like her mother, with miniscule sapphires throughout the scales.

I couldn’t even decide on whether or not I should be feeling nervous. I was nervous, certainly, but should I be when Alma and I were already engaged? Even if she rejected the ring, she wouldn’t be rejecting me. At least, I was fairly certain she wouldn’t be.

“Master, I can suggest numerous romantic places nearby if you’re wanting to take her somewhere. I’ll also quite gladly practice with you if you wish.” stated Mila in a flirtatious manner.

“Thank you for the offer, Mila. Should I really attempt to hide this from her? She might be somewhat aware of it already.” I confided.

“I feel she’s waited long enough, master. Besides, you two have work to do.” she replied.

Placing the ring in my pocket, I nodded and then hurried down to Alma’s wing. The door opened before I even knocked, so I walked inside, feeling expected.

“Good evening, my darling. Was there something you… What’s in your pocket?” she asked, her eyes widening as she spoke.

Knowing she probably could feel the shape, I knelt down, kissed her hand, and then looked into her eyes, taking in their beauty once more. “Keeping anything secret in this household is impossible.” I told her, pulling out the ring and holding it up.

“James, this is…” she started saying, stopping as a tear came to her eye. She shut her eyes and took a breath before asking, “Is this for me?”

“Yes, if you’ll have it. The twins chastised me for having not given you an engagement ring yet, but I forged this especially for you.” I explained, feeling a touch guilty that I was implying the ring had already existed. I couldn’t explain to the twins that time had been manipulated for me to forge the ring in a mere second though, so the story had to be that the ring was already made when they had chided me. “Do you like it, will you accept it?” I asked in one breath.

She nodded and embraced me, slipping out of her chair. I hugged her, hoping she was truly happy. I hadn’t meant to make her cry, but crying could be a good thing from most girls. What did crying mean for Alma in this circumstance? I failed to refrain from laughing when she casted a spell to keep her tears from my shirt. She hit my back, but I couldn’t contain my laughter.

“I’m sorry.” I told her, still laughing.

“You don’t sound sorry.” she replied somewhat indignantly.

“If those are tears of joy, they’re a treasure to me, not something to keep from me. If they’re not, I would know how I offended you, so I don’t make the mistake again.” I explained, finally containing my mirth.

She sighed, pressing her cheek into my shoulder.

“You hardly sound pleased, my love.” I stated.

“Say you love me.” she insisted.

“I love you, Alma Lucy Pendreigh. Have you really doubted it?” I asked, feeling hurt by the idea.

“Never, but I still enjoy hearing it. The ring reminds me of my mother. I cannot tell you how, but I’m certain she would enjoy seeing it, even if the ring wasn’t magical.” she explained. Then she asked “How, by the way, was this done?”

“I’ll show you some of it when we forge our wedding rings. We’ll need them in a month, you know.” I replied.

“You want to personally forge our wedding rings?” she inquired.

I couldn’t tell if she liked the idea or not, but I explained “I cannot honesty take credit for the idea, but I really like it. I’ll forge your ring, and you can forge mine. Both rings will be perfectly unique that way, and, I feel, more meaningful. What do you think?”

“I think Aaliyah put you up to this.” she replied.

I felt her create a spell to take the ring from my finger and was glad to see the enchantment I made was working properly when her spell failed.

She leaned back, looked me in the eye, and asked “Was that you?”

“In a sense, considering I placed the spells into this ring. Might I place it on your finger instead of having you take it from me?” I inquired.

She smiled as she said, “As you wish.” She held up her left hand and allowed me to slip the ring onto her finger. Staring at it, she told me “James, this is really excellent work. How long have you studied jewelry design?”

“I can’t say for certain, but I will admit that there were numerous attempts before I even could get the shape right. Learning to cut and fit the gems took some effort as well. Then there were the spells. I thought the heat from the ring would be a nice indicator for you to find it should you need to put it down, not that you’d forget where you put it.” I quickly assured her. “If someone were to attempt walking off with it, you’d know.”

Alma jumped to her feet and held out her hand to me. “Come along. There is something we must do.” she told me.

I left the ground completely with the force by which she pulled me up but landed easily enough.

“Aaliyah, if you will.” she whispered.

We were instantly in a cave. I could sense magic ahead of us. Alma created lights, and I stared in wonder. There was a sword in a stone ahead of us, and I knew that blade.

“Excalibur.” I whispered.

“Yes.” she stated, glancing at me. “The sword was never tossed back into the lake as some stories will tell. After Arthur’s death, the sword was taken here and placed back into the stone from which Arthur had drawn it. To my people, this was Caladfwlch. Though Rhongomiant, his spear, performed nicely for the next in line, Caladfwlch wouldn’t. No one has even been able to draw the sword from the stone in the years since, but we’ve kept a tradition of having each in line attempt it. As we are engaged, you get your chance as well.”

“You’re descended from King Arthur?” I asked, not seeing the resemblance between my petite fiancée and the man who had given me Carnwennan.

“Obviously. Was my name not enough of a clue?” she asked.

“I suppose Pendreigh and Pendragon are similar.” I admitted.

“My family left the name Pen Draig behind when we abdicated the throne, leaving our country in the care of relatives. We’ve been attempting to redeem ourselves ever since.” she explained.

“Redeem yourselves?” I asked.

“Yes. My ancestor killed one of his sons, and things only got that far due to carelessness. You should read the account of the damages he caused someday, but for now, take your turn with the sword. Caladfwlch is waiting.” she insisted.

“One more thing first. Did Kyduan make it to see his father?” I asked.

Her eyes opened in surprise. “You were there, weren’t you.” she stated. “Carnwennan wasn’t lost. Arthur gave it to you.” she stated, stepping closer to me as she stared up at me. “I wondered at how that dagger came to be in your possession, but given your friends, I believe I now know.”

I frowned, not sure if I should answer. I already said too much. “Did he make it?” I asked again.

“Yes, James. He did.” she told me with a smile. “He also recounted how his father had seen a glorious man whom he warned could prove capable of taking the throne, should he wish it.”

“An interesting tale. You should tell me it in full someday.” I told her. Then I turned and walked to the sword. There was an impatience radiating out from it, sinking into me. This sword remembered, just as I remembered the feel of its hilt in my grasp that day. Excalibur easily slid free, igniting once more with a greater brilliance than before.

“Are you here to claim the throne now, James?” teased Alma as she stared at me through the light.

“Obviously not, though I would trouble you for a sheath. Our friend here is a little excited, and there is no way I can hide this radiance.” I told her.

“Bear with it for a while. We need to make our way over to my home, and there is something you should see.” she told me, smiling brightly.

I followed her up and out of the cave, watching her suppress various traps along the way. When we came outside, there was a vibrance to the land which I found to be rare away from my yard, especially in February. I was accustomed to plants that looked entirely healthy out of season due to Emma’s work, but what was happening here?

Barely away from the cave, I stared in wonder as an old tree regained life in its dying limbs. “What is happening?” I asked aloud.

“Having drawn the sword, you’re technically the King, and the King is one with the land here. This should be spreading across my family’s ancestral lands. My people will be impressed with the crops this year.” she claimed.

“I can’t stay here.” I stated.

“No one said you should. As long as your claim to Caladfwlch remains, the land will be as healthy as you are.” she replied, still smiling.

I loved her smile as I loved her, but I couldn’t help wondering if she suspected this would happen. If she did, had she planned for it? Alma might well have purchased additional land, knowing the crops would be bountiful. As far as I knew, I couldn’t get sick. Did that mean this land could never falter while I lived? I knew Caladfwlch wouldn’t leave me. These ancient weapons were affected by my magic, so it had no choice but to adore me. I let out a deep breath and hugged Alma’s shoulder as we walked to her estate. I couldn’t hold clever business against her, even if she might have used me in a sense.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 308

“Is this everyone?” asked Dejon as we entered the ballroom for a bit of gaming.

He had met around half of the household in the time since unloading his stuff in his room. There was simply too much to fit easily, so he was left with a bit of a mess. I was certain that would get him through the night well enough. I did approve of how he greeted everyone with a firm handshake.

“You really should at least read through the website before you start making assumptions.” I warned him. “But no, there are several more.”

I was going to say more, but Kayla came rushing into the room, saying, “James! James! Jemal lifted me up with his powers!”

“Really?” I asked. “Did you feel like you were flying?”

“No. The zoomies are way better for flying.” she replied. “It was really cool though! His arms were full, and I was trying to sneak out, and he just lifted me!”

“Just don’t let me catch you flying a zoomie through the house again.” I warned her.

“What if Mila catches me?” she asked, all too sincerely.

“Don’t let her catch you either.” I stated.

“But what if it’s not one of her bodies?” she asked.

“Kayla, don’t fly zoomies through the house.” I told her.

“Yes, sir.” she told me, lowering her head.

I patted her head and said, “There are too many things which could easily be broken in this section, and you might run into someone in your wing.”

Grinning and looking up at me, she said, “I’d love to have feathery wings! Can you give me wings?”

“Sorry, but no.” I told her.

“Aww… okay.” she told me before skipping over to tell Emma about Jemal lifting her.

“You allow kids here?” asked Dejon.

“My secretary’s twelve years old, so yes.” I told him.

“But isn’t this a business?” he asked.

“Businesses can’t involve kids?” I inquired.

“Well, they can… but shouldn’t this be a kid-free zone? Like you said, there are so many things that could break.” he replied.

“Kayla lives here, and Aaliyah’s more capable than any of us, so no.”

“So employees don’t have to live here?” he asked.

I laughed and said, “No, I don’t really care where someone lives, as long as they have a place that suits them.” Looking him in the eye, I then said, “If you have somewhere you’d rather go, we don’t have to wait until tomorrow. I’m sure I can get you there this night.”

“What? No. I mean to say that’s not what I meant. I was just curious. I’ll look at your website if you don’t need me for anything.” he told me. Sitting down, he looked around before asking “How does this work?”

Before I could answer, the keyboard illuminated and Mila provided the chair tutorial on the screen. Feeling he had ample help, I took a seat to get an hour of work done in my guild before Marco would be serving dinner.

“James?” asked Alma as she walked over to me some time later.

“Hmm?” I replied.

“Would you be upset if I were to enlist Dejon for a few errands?” she inquired.

I stopped what I was doing and turned my chair to face her, suddenly feeling on edge. “What sort of errands?” I asked.

“I hardly see why that matters, since he isn’t in your employ.” she replied. “He’s just staying for the night, correct?”

“Yes, but I don’t really like the idea of you forcing him to mess with people’s minds.” I admitted.

“You are well aware that I’m perfectly capable of affecting the minds of others without the aid of someone like him. I simply thought of a use for him which might help us see if he’s trustworthy as well as let him earn a small wage.” she insisted.

“Would him earning this wage involve him using his ability?” I asked.

“Not necessarily, though I wouldn’t discourage him if that is how he wishes to proceed.” she replied.

I wanted to argue against it, but he wasn’t in my employ. I would hardly be dictating his life even if he was. I nodded and said, “Please let me know how things turn out.”

She smiled, walked over to him, and asked him to come with her. I didn’t feel easy about this, but she’d hopefully give me better details afterward. I probably should have had her sign a contract guaranteeing me information. She might have even approved of my foresight if I had, but I wasn’t going to start utilizing contracts with my girlfriend. We could discuss things without them.

Dinner passed without seeing either of them again. I could guess that Alma was stalking Dejon on his “errands”, but I still felt uneasy. Perhaps I should have argued more strongly against this.

By midnight, I found myself pacing in my office. Yes, Dejon wouldn’t be involved in whatever he was doing if he hadn’t shown up here, looking to use his magic on me, but he probably wouldn’t be involved with some mysterious errand had I not suggested that he stay here tonight.

“Master, what is troubling you?” asked Mila.

“Dejon. I still don’t know what to think of him, and I’m worried about what Alma has him doing.” I replied.

“He’s working as a bouncer for one of Lady Pendreigh’s clubs.” she replied.

“What? Are you sure?” I asked.

“Of course, master. Look.” she stated, displaying a video feed of the club next to me.

“Then what happened to Alma?” I asked.

“She’s in her wing, working and watching the same feed.” she replied.

“How is this an errand?” I asked.

“The errands came first, master. Lady Pendreigh had Dejon escort a package across town, assist in unloading a truck, and convince Eddie Clarke to sell his store. Then she set him up as a bouncer for tonight.” explained Mila.

Extra details as well as video footage displayed for me as she spoke. What bothered me the most was that Eddie Clarke was an elderly man, and Dejon quite likely used his magic to persuade the man. The contract was signed within a few minutes of his arrival.

“Master, you look disturbed. I assure you that no harm was done.” stated Mila.

“No harm? That elderly gentleman just lost his shop!” I exclaimed, shocked that she wouldn’t consider that harmful.

“Yes, he did, but he was in debt and the bank was probably going to foreclose soon, given that Eddie’s nephew had transferred. In the long run, this deal will let him have an easier retirement. Lady Pendreigh’s offer was more than generous.” she explained.

I still didn’t like it. At least, I didn’t want to like it. Mila was more than likely correct about the upcoming foreclosure, and Alma could’ve purchased the building at a far lower price had she let that happen.

“Do you think he’ll be happier this way?” I asked.

“I cannot say for certain, master, but he will at least be able to pay his bills. From what I have seen in the past year, Eddie Clarke was quite stubborn where his business was concerned, and he’ll probably wonder why he sold it for quite some time. I can monitor him for a while if you wish.” she replied.

I nodded and said, “Thank you, Mila. Please do. I’m sure Alma will be curious as well.” I already knew I didn’t always approve of Alma’s business practices, but she did have a good heart. I was certain she did. As I looked back to Dejon, I hoped he had a good heart as well, but seeing what he did only made me question it more.

Best Friend For Hire, Entry 305

“James, did you eat some of my share!?” demanded Alma, staring intently into my eyes.

“Of course not. Dessert just goes all too quickly.” I assured her.

“That was…” she started to say, pausing as if her vast mind couldn’t pull the right word for it.

“Out of this world?” I teased.

“I suppose that would be one way of putting it, yes.” she agreed.

Evanna smirked. Carl had made her come cater for us. Toward the beginning of my meal, I had found myself wondering how much of her life was taken up serving me food. She was practically my exclusive host at the restaurant, and older versions of her seemed to have seen me a great deal, enough to tell the difference between Alma and Mila relatively quickly. I had let the worries slide away as she smiled throughout the meal. She seemed too happy to be troubled by me.

“Are you human?” asked Alma suddenly.

Evanna laughed and said, “Of course. What else would I be?”

“Can’t you tell?” I teased.

Alma sighed and said, “I can tell she appears human, but the phone in her pocket is not any model I’ve seen. Neither was the one she had at Aaliyah’s party, so tell me who would carry such an advanced device and trade it within a year?”

“Evanna, obviously.” I replied.

Evanna laughed again, rolling her eyes.

“Are you flirting with her?” asked Alma, looking between the two of us.

I hugged her and said, “Don’t be foolish. Evanna’s a friend and probably would like us to leave, so she can finish cleaning up.”

“But James…” protested Alma.

I quickly placed my finger over her lips as I said, “You’ll find out all you need to know soon enough. I promise.”

“Not really much to find out.” insisted Evanna. “If anyone’s strange around here, you two are, but I’ve found that the strange ones are the ones most worth knowing.”

I smiled and told her “Thank you. Please give my compliments to Carl.” He had shown up a few times through the meal, chatting away with me while time seemed frozen for everyone else, but I doubted Evanna knew.

Alma looked between the two of us and sighed as she stood. Then she said, “Thank you for the meal. My compliments to the chef.”

“How would you feel about a gondola ride?” I asked.

“Wha-t?” she asked, finding herself in Venice partway through the world.

“I asked Aaliyah for a favor.” I admitted.

“But what about Evanna. We were standing right next to her!” she exclaimed.

“Evanna’s fine. She’s seen Stranger Things, I assure you.” I replied, knowing that Alma couldn’t get the reference. The show wouldn’t air for a few years, but Aaliyah had insisted I watch it with her a while ago.

The gondola ride was made all the more enjoyable by finally being able to understand Italian. I had been meaning to learn it for a while. I can’t say that Alma looked particularly comfortable, since she seemed to tense when people passed us.

As we walked the streets afterward, I asked “What’s bothering you?”

“I’m a prominent member of my family, so I might be recognized. If rumor gets around that I’m here, Adelmar might start asking me questions I can’t answer. Even if he doesn’t care to check, some of my own subordinates might panic if they believe I’ve arrived in Italy, thinking I might be looking in on them.” she explained. “Then there’s those of my family who might feel snubbed if they find I was here and didn’t pay a social call.”

“Just laugh at their ridiculousness, mistaking Mila for you. She can be many places at once.” I suggested.

“I suppose that’s true.” she admitted. “Oh.” she stated, looking around. “Switzerland?” she asked.

“I thought we should have some chocolate, given the day.” I told her.

“James, this is so completely unfair. We’ve hopped through time twice as well as altering our location. The things you could do on whim are frightening to consider.” she stated.

“Scared of me then?” I teased.

“No, but… don’t you feel this is an abuse of power?” she suggested.

“I can’t abuse power I don’t have, and I trust Aaliyah’s judgement of what’s fine.” I told her.

“But I swear that she would do anything for you.” replied Alma.

“She does tend to tell me that.” I agreed.

“She’s the most powerful being in the world. Having her do as you please makes you the most powerful man.” she explained.

“Not really. The power’s all hers, so I’m just the guy lucky enough to be her friend.” I insisted.

“You do have remarkable abilities of your own, my darling.” she stated.

“Perhaps, but the things I can personally do aren’t really relevant to this conversation, given that you’re worrying over what I might convince Aaliyah to do for me. She’s also the most intelligent and wisest being on the planet, so not trusting her judgement is ridiculous.” I assured her.

“Given some of the things she’s done, I don’t know that I’ll ever trust her.” she argued.

“You will.” I asserted. “I have no clue why you’ll come to trust her, but I’m confident that she’ll convince you. She really does like you.”

“She could be lying.” stated Alma.

“And there wouldn’t be a thing we could do, so there’s no use worrying.” I told her.

She laughed and said, “Coming from you, that’s hysterical. You, my dear, worry about things far more than even I do.”

“The lack of use for worrying doesn’t negate the worries, unfortunately. I was attempting to be comforting.” I replied somewhat defensively.

I considered saying more, but we were almost to the shop. I purchased enough boxes to share with everyone once we returned.

“I’ll take those, master.” stated Mila as she reached for the bags the moment we left the store.

“Thank you, Mila.” I told her, passing the bags over. I couldn’t hear her footsteps the moment she rounded the corner, so I was certain she was home.

“Mind one last surprise?” I asked, holding my hand out to Alma.

Smiling, she said, “I’d hate to think what would happen if I refused you.”

I started to protest, but she pulled me down and kissed me, gasping a moment later as she quickly looked around.

“James, where are we?” she asked.

“A beach.” I assured her.

“Yes, obviously. Where in the world though?” she inquired.

I could see why she was a bit startled. I didn’t recognize what I saw of the coastline either, and the air seemed incredibly fresh. “Perhaps we should be asking when are we first. I had requested somewhere private for a swim.” Seeing tents, I pointed and told her “You’ll find a choice of swimwear in the tent over there.”

Alma looked like she wanted to say more, but she turned and walked toward one of the tents. I took to the other and quickly changed.

“You wouldn’t believe what Aaliyah had suggested.” I told her.

“Yes, I can. She probably wanted to know why we needed swimwear.” stated Alma.

There was a slight tremor to her voice, but I couldn’t discern the meaning behind it. To my surprise, I beat her out.

“Just give me a moment.” she stated, apparently realizing that I was staring at her tent.

“We have all the time you want.” I assured her, frowning when I noticed the waves stopped moving. Aaliyah was messing with us now.

The bikini Alma had settled on wearing seemed daring compared with the one she had chosen for the Bahamas. Not wanting to stare, I jumped several hundred feet into the ocean. She followed, splashing beside me. We swam for quite a while, seeing all sorts of exotic-looking creatures. The one that really seemed to shock Alma looked like an enormous dolphin. As the sun started to set, we came back to the beach to watch, sitting on the sand hand-in-hand.