Chapter 1 (A quick break-in)
Was stealing research data from the prime minister — most powerful Untalented person in Japan — really a good idea? Even if the client paid well?
Rio swallowed. With the cicadas screaming into the night, she wished Leo hadn’t moved from their hiding spot yet. She needed her brother’s support. Wanted to be reassured this was the right thing to do.
A heavy summer wind rustled the bush she hid in on the edge of the park, several branches picking at her dark-green tank top and exposed skin. They prodded more and more until they tangled in her shoulder-length hair. The constant poking tickled and sent icy chills down the back of her thighs.
She should have tied her hair back. Focus! As she glared at the top floor of the fifty-eighth prime minister’s six-story house, her heart pounded in her chest.
Across the street, the large stone wall surrounding the prime minister’s house stretched to the sidewalk. Since the six-story house wasn’t in the center of the lot, the layout information from their client must be accurate. It had to be. Each side other than the main entrance held a garden between the wall and the house. A way in despite the guards. But. There would have to be guards outside the walls, as well. Where were they? Could they see her? Or her brother, who wasn’t in the bushes anymore?
Her breath caught.
Run. Run! Hide!
She dug her foot into the dirt and glanced over her shoulder, muscles tense.
Did the guards patrol the park? A flash of light stung the corner of her eye, drawing her attention.
Her head jerked to the left.
The convenience store on the other side of the park glowed in the night, neon lights killing her night vision. One of the store workers — probably — held a flashlight by the trashcans, and its light reflected off the wind chime that hung above the doors. The lamp-posts spastically positioned throughout the park cast shadows in every direction. Guards could be anywhere. But nothing moved.
A sigh deflated her chest, and she inhaled, filling her lungs with the thick, humid air. Maybe her gut was right. Maybe she should run. But their debt. And if they failed to complete the job without even trying and ran, their pack would rip them to shreds. Sweat beaded across her skin, and a lump caught in her throat.
In front of her, Leo — her twin brother and only family — peeked around a park bench and tapped his foot. His short, black hair bristled with perspiration, and his navy t-shirt clung to his muscled back. Unlike hers, his shorts reached his knees. The mist-like aura that wrapped around his body when she focused on him for more than a few seconds tasted like peaches.
Delicious. No. Icky. Strawberries were the best. Like the ones Zack had always given her after lunch.
Leo lifted his left hand, plated-gauntlet catching the light, and he waved for her to come forward.
On trembling legs, she edged from the bush and made her way to the park bench. “Are you sure Prime Minister Bea’s not home?”
Leo nodded, dark brown eyes — a shade lighter than hers — never leaving the target. “According to our pack, the clients for this job said he took most of his guards — the Talented ones — to meet with this New Emperor.”
Her lips quivered. The Foreign Emperor.
After pulling his left hand out of the plated-gauntlet, he turned and placed a soft finger against her lips. “Calm down.”
A jolt of pleasure raced through her body, and her toes curled. Double icky. But, if a touch felt like this, what would kissing a boy be like? Leo? No. Triple no. He shouldn’t have touched her. Not like that. Though, he was cute. In another’s eyes, at least. No. The one she wanted to kiss was Zack, her teacher from a few years back. Strong. Handsome. Kind. He —
Leo coughed before replacing his plated-gauntlet. “Focus, Rio.” Like how she imagined a father would act, Leo used a commanding yet kind voice. “Remember why we were chosen.”
“Soon, the guards patrolling should pass by. Outside and inside the wall.”
Her hands brushed past a small Hello Kitty bag tied to the back of her stolen leather belt then caressed the power-forged daggers strapped in sheaths at her sides. “Will we —”
“No. When the ones on the outside are out of sight, swallow a cat into socket five.” He brushed his armored fingers across the orbed necklace around his neck. A deep breath later, he touched his pelvis where the fifth slot rested inside his body. A nervous habit of his when he was scared.
Not a good sign if he were as scared as her.
“It should give us enough speed and lift to clear that wall,” he said.
Rio arched an eyebrow, trying to act cool. “But wouldn’t it be better to use a crow?”
“No. The crow’s flight wouldn’t get us over the wall fast enough, and we should save it for our escape.”
Leo-Nii is so smart. With him around, the fear stabbing into her gut vanished.
The tension in his shoulders relaxed.
Maybe she also made him feel stronger.
A group of Untalented guards wearing suits in spite of the heat marched along the sidewalk outside of the wall. One of the guards outside the wall kicked a small stone like a soccer ball. Clang! The rock hit one of the lamp posts. The second guard elbowed the first and shook his head as they turned the corner with the kindergarten across the street.
Unprofessional. Rent-a-guards. No real threat if handled right. Perhaps this job wouldn’t be so bad.
Rio glanced to her right towards the corner with another convenience store — probably a 7-Eleven, but she couldn’t be sure since she wasn’t wearing her glasses. Though, if she swallowed an alley cat into her first socket — No. Not worth it.
Shuffling footsteps behind the wall grew louder before diminishing. A fancy-looking red car drove past on the road then all fell quiet save for the noisy cicadas trying to find mates.
Those insects being out of their holes early was such bad luck.
Leo held his hand up and made a fist. Time to dance. He sucked the spirit of a cat from his orbed necklace and swallowed it into his fifth socket. His hair gave off a faint blue light — his power residue. A translucent alley cat, the size of a large hamster, appeared around his waist, walking on the air as if it were solid ground. It phased through the park bench without concern and continued its stroll around his body.
She reached out with her mind and embraced the orb holding the spirit of a cat. She inhaled, swallowing the cat spirit. The aftertaste of stringy, unsalted meat stuck to her tongue and carried a hint of rotting garbage. Why did they always have to take the spirits of alley cats? They tasted so disgusting.
“Meow,” the cat’s spirit said as it fell into her fifth socket.
Euphoric power surged through her entire body, and the muscles in both her legs bulged, expanding slightly as they facilitated the cat’s borrowed strength. A heartbeat later, her muscles relaxed and returned to their normal size.
Her usually black hair glowed a bright purple and illuminated the darkness around her. For Talented eyes only.
Her translucent alley cat, as large as a fat toy poodle, pranced around her body and made mental noises at her brother’s cat.
“I’m ready.” Rio breathed through her nose, trying to ignore the lingering taste of cat.
Leo pointed at the wall. “Go.”
Ahead of him, she sprinted across the street and leaped over the three-meter wall with ease. Wind whipped at her hair as she descended, turning in mid-air to land on her tip toes like a ballerina. Or at least how they looked on posters.
Her brother’s body crested the wall, and he placed his gauntleted hands atop it, flipping over to land beside her. He panted. “The difference in our power is stupid.” His petulant tone reminded her of how other siblings spoke to one another. “So stupid.”
“Oh?” She matched the tone of his voice. “Jealous?”
“Hardly. It’s the only reason you’re here without being angry or frustrated, after all.” After taking the lead, Leo led her through the prime minister’s flower garden and to the backdoor. “And I don’t like it when we split up.”
Silver English letters along the top of the door and a golden door knocker in the center made her sick. How could rich people be so wasteful? It was ridiculous. But. Maybe they could pry them off. They could —
Clatter! Something metal hit the floor on the other side of the door, and Leo’s hand froze a few centimeters away from the door handle.
Rio’s heart rate spiked, and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end.
This wasn’t good. If the rent-a-guards stationed at this door weren’t just patrolling, getting inside without taking center stage would be impossible.
Her feet began shuffling across the stone patio behind Leo while she chewed on her lower-lip.
Damn cicadas. This was their fault. Super bad luck. What was wrong with them?
Rio opened her mouth.
“What do you mean you saw something, Funa?” a husky, female voice asked from the other side of a flower bush.
“I swear, Juri. I saw something above the wall just a few minutes ago,” a man — Funa — said in a squeaky voice. “I think someone was climbing —”
“Don’t be stupid,” Juri said.
“Hey! Who are you calling stupid?”
Smack! The sound echoed through the garden and drew bile into the back of Rio’s throat. They were going to get caught. Even rent-a-guards could be troublesome. Guards outside. Guards inside. Not good. Terrible actually. This was —
Leo grabbed Rio by the wrist and pushed the door open.
A large metal vase painted a solid, beautiful purple lay sprawled across the fancy-looking blue and green carpet. The carpet looked like it was some work of art, but the design didn’t make any sense. Pictures and wall hangings lined both walls, most of old men doing old-men things. One had a man writing at a massive desk. One a man hunting. Another had a man sitting on what had to be a toilet.
Rio covered her mouth as she began chuckling.
Click. The door shut behind them, and Leo motioned down the hallway. “We need to hurry.”
Nodding, Rio fell into step behind him, dancing between steps on the balls of her feet and using the cat’s grace to avoid making any sound.
Left around a corner. Right at the next intersection. Cut through a massive kitchen area. Mumbling voices on the other side of the door leading out of the kitchen. The door handle turned, and the door began to swing open.
Leo skidded to a stop.
The voices grew louder: six men. Wider and wider the door opened.
Her hands trembled, and she pranced across the room and slid under a counter. She contorted her body into a ball and edged into the small space behind a pair of hanging pots. I hope Leo-Nii made it out of sight.
“What do you mean?” one of the six men asked. His icy voice turned the skin on her arms into the rough side of a sponge.
“I mean what if this Foreign Emperor gets tired of getting put off by Prime Minister Bea and decides to come here directly?” a slightly boyish voice asked.
The prime minister was putting the Foreign Emperor off? He could come there? How soon would he be there?
“Then we shoot him,” the first voice said. “Might be nice to have something other than walking around to do.”
A heavy pressure closed in on her chest, and she began panting. The Foreign Emperor. This couldn’t be happening. If the Foreign Emperor were coming here, they would all die. He was a monster. He killed everything in his wake and left nothing behind. Each inhalation wheezed through her contracting throat, and the pots in front of her spun.
Was she still breathing? Nothing seemed to reach her lungs. She was suffocating. But. But maybe it was for the best. To suffocate to death rather than fall prey to the horrors of the Foreign Emperor.
Whimpering cries climbed from her quivering lips, and one of the pots in front of her made a clicking sound.
“Stop,” the first voice said. “Did you hear that?”
“No?” all five other men said.
The first voice growled before a thwapping sound slammed against the counter above her. “This whole business is driving me insane! Come. Let’s finish this waste-of-time patrol so we can grab a drink.”
“Yes, sir,” the five other men said.
Feet appeared in front of her.
The Foreign Emperor is here! She screamed.
Leo bent down and placed his hand over her mouth, muffling her voice. “Quiet. The Foreign Emperor isn’t here. They were just talking about what-ifs.”
She lunged from her hiding spot and wrapped her hands around his neck as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Leo-Nii. Leo-Nii, I —”
“Shhhhh. It’s alright now.” He wrapped his arms around her and patted her on the back. “I’m here for you now. No need to worry.”
She sniffled. “But —”
“No buts. Just calm down and relax. We have a job to do. Be professional.”
After wiping her tears away, she pulled away from the comforting hug. “You’re right.”
He offered her his hand.
Shaking her head, she pointed to the door. I’m too old to hold hands like that with you, Leo-Nii. “We need to be agile.”
“Okay?” He shrugged then walked from the kitchen. He scratched his chin.
Was he lost already?
“Follow me.” He turned right and hurried through a series of small rooms.
Footsteps down the hallway.
Taking the next right and opening the first door on his left, Leo gestured inside the closet as the footsteps grew louder. “Stop wasting time,” he said in hushed tones.
Rio blinked then rushed into the closet beside him. “I’m doing no such thing.” Frustration ground her teeth together. “I —”
Leo grinned. “Sorry. Just trying to bring the real you out.” He slid the door shut.
“I don’t have to be angry or frustrated to be strong.”
“No, I —”
The door slid shut.
“I know they must do it,” a familiar female voice — the rent-a-guard, Juri — said from the hallway, “Wait. What are you eating?”
“I’m not —” Funa grunted. “What did you do that for?”
“Because you’re eating while we’re working,” she said.
“It’s just a stupid temp job.” He made a smacking sound. “Besides. I’m not eating anything.”
“Gum? How many times! Have I told you! Not to chew gum at work?” She sounded angry.
But why would anyone care if someone were chewing gum?
Several other footsteps followed Funa and Juri then the large group divided into two, moving off in different directions.
After counting to one-hundred, Leo opened the door and peeked outside. “Clear.”
“Let’s get this research data and get out of here.” Rio shivered. “This place is starting to tap-dance across my skin with insect legs.”
“Me, too.” He hesitated when he stepped into the hallway, sucking on his upper-lip.
Something was wrong.
“Leo-Nii?” she asked.
“Got it.” He turned to the left and fell into a run down the hallway, passing the corridor they had just come through. Four turns later, he led her into a dark stairwell and up five flights of stairs to the sixth floor. He made the right choice.
Though, didn’t he say there were two staircases that led to the sixth floor? No matter. He knew the directions. This had to be the right one.
Just outside the staircase was an expansive room with two massive couches in and several drink shelves along the side walls. The three doors on the other side of the room called her name, but which one would lead to the research data? Or at least the flash drive that held the research data. The plush carpet underfoot made her feel guilty for wearing her sneakers inside.
“Which door should we take?” Rio moved around Leo and approached the door in the center.
She spun on her heels and put her hands on her hips. “What is wrong with you? Didn’t Yuuki-sensei teach us not to use such language?”
Face turning red, he rubbed the back of his head as if he were the younger twin rather than the older. “Sorry. It’s just. Just. In the layout of this house. According to our client. There. There should only be one door leaving from this room.”
Leo opened his mouth.
Rio held up a finger. “If you say another bad word, I’ll punch you in the nose.”
His mouth snapped shut.
“Good.” She glanced over her shoulder at the staircase behind them. “Let’s go back and see if we can find the right —”
Clack-clack-clack. Footsteps echoed up the staircase. Crack-crack-crack. All three doors on the other side of the room slammed open. Guards poured into the room, surrounding Rio and Leo. By their lack of their auras, all were Untalented with either a club or a knife in their hands.
Gut clenching, Rio wanted to curse for the first time in her life. No. That was wrong. Instead, she balled her hands into fists.