“So you’re the slave, eh?” the old woman asked.
She was frowning at him from the doorway, the narrowing of her eyes pulling each wrinkle a little deeper into her face. He returned her gaze with a scowl.
“Yeah. I guess.” He tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone.
James stood between them, a little awkward.
“Uhh,” he muttered. “Baba, this, uh. This is Caleb. Cal-”
He was stopped short when the woman thrust out a hand.
“Tsuru Toranaga,” she said. “James’ grandmother. Heard you could use some help.”
Caleb gazed for a moment at the woman’s outstretched hand, and wondered briefly if he could afford to be rude to her.
He tapped into his familiar’s senses and gave her power level a sniff.
He shook her hand.
“Caleb,” he muttered. “Just call me Caleb.”
At that, the woman merely chuckled, before standing aside and waving the pair of them through the door.
James gave her a hug on the way by, the two conversing quietly for a moment in what Caleb took to be Japanese.
He pretended not to notice, setting his eyes instead on the interior of the place.
It was a penthouse, as far as he could tell, the chamber after the elevator leading out into a curved hallway that wrapped around it, splitting off into a corridor on either side, lined with doors. It was all wood panelling everywhere he looked. Expensive. Thick carpets, too. These guys must be loaded.
He tried not to be jealous. He really did.
“Nice place,” he muttered behind himself. Neither of them seemed to hear him. “… Suit yourselves.”
He opted to leave the pair of them behind, and wandered off down the better lit of the two hallways, down which he could hear the faint, familiar sounds of exertion over the occasional thudding impacts of a body against the floor. Someone was training.
After a few dozen feet, the hallway fed into a large, open plan room littered with bookcases and loose furniture, the thick carpet giving way to a hardwood floor. The sounds, he realized quickly enough, were coming from a padded mat in the middle of the room, where a familiar girl seemed to be having the time of her life. He scowled.
It was Tasha; the girl who’d gotten him in this mess to begin with. She was growling, engaged in a losing grapple with a male figure that, to Caleb, appeared to have been carved from solid granite. He made no effort to pretend it wasn’t satisfying when the statue eventually floored her.
There were others about as well, of course; a slightly balding man seated on a couch beside the training mat,his back to Caleb, presumably controlling the statue. At the far end of the room was a pale woman he’d have placed in her early twenties, seated halfway up the steps leading to some second level, her face buried in a book, a set of headphones wrapped around her ears and a shaggy looking golden retriever sprawled against her legs.
It was Tasha who noticed Caleb first, the statue pulled away, and she pushed herself to her feet, panting, only to catch him standing there as she dusted herself off. Immediately, her energized grin gave way to a scowl.
“Hey, teach,” she muttered. “Looks like the asshole’s here.”
“Fuck you too, Tasha.”
From the changes to her face alone, Caleb could tell the girl was furious, but before Tasha had a chance to respond in kind, her teacher cut in.
“So you’re Caleb, huh?” he asked, pushing himself upright and turning around to face him. “Well, I’m Hideyoshi Toranaga, and Tasha tells me you’ve been lying to my grandson.” For the life of him, Caleb couldn’t read the expression on the old man’s face.
Yup, groaned a voice inside his mind. This is gonna go great.
Outwardly, however, he only sighed.
“Yeah,” he muttered. “I guess that’s one way to say it.”
At that, the old man allowed himself a grunt.
“Good,” he rumbled. “If you’d tried to make excuses, I might have had to burn you.”
Caleb shrugged. He almost wished the threat of harm still meant something to him.
“I don’t like to lie about the shitty things I do. I only do it when I have to.”
“Good answer,” Hideyoshi replied. “Because it’s time for you to be honest now. James told me you’re a slave. Who’s your owner, then? Who made you, and why?”
Again, Caleb only shrugged.
“No idea,” he muttered. “They keep us in the dark about that kind of stuff, where they can. Makes it harder to spill information to the feds or whoever else turns up. I know they trained me some place north. It was cold there. The ground had ice in it maybe nine months out of every year. Snowed sometimes. Pretty sure the locals didn’t speak much english.”
“Great,” Hideyoshi growled, annoyed. “That’s real helpful. Only narrows it down to maybe seven countries in Europe alone. And that’s not even counting the entirety of northern Rus-”
“Settle down, Yoshi,” called a familiar voice from the hall behind Caleb’s back; James’ grandma. He glanced behind himself, and saw her heading idly over, hand in hand with James. “There’s still plenty of knowledge we can glean from this. Let’s try not to get excited.”
For a moment, Hideyoshi simply glowered at her. Then, the man reluctantly closed his eyes, and took a breath.
“Sorry about that,” Tsuru continued evenly, returning her gaze to Caleb. “My husband gets a little short with people who betray our family’s trust.”
Caleb didn’t answer that at first. There didn’t seem to be any response that would help him here.
He glanced around the room, first at James, gazing over at him with an apologetic sort of confusion on his face, then at Tasha, still glaring, her arms folded tight across her chest, then finally at the girl on the stairs, still just listening to her music, one hand absently scratching behind the dog’s ears. He wished he could be that far above it all.
“Hmm,” Tsuru hummed. “Thought it might be. Now then. Tell me about their organizational structure. How are you managed? Who do you answer to?”
“Two man teams,” Caleb replied, watching as Hideyoshi led Tasha reluctantly away to resume their training. She still glared from time to time. “A boy and a girl, usually. Usually, we’re the same age as each other, but I think something happened to my partner’s old one, cuz she’s about eight years older than I am. She handles most of the stuff about dealing with the higher ups. Only handler I know about is the boss. I talk to her on the phone when she gives me targets. She sounds American, but that’s not really worth much,” he dropped the Canadian accent for a moment, switching to his Irish lilt. “They teach us how to change our voices, so I figure the boss might be doing the same.”
It felt strange, confiding this all to strangers; like breaking a kind of taboo. He caught James’ expression shifting when he made the changes to his voice, a touch of surprise lighting upon his face.
Guess you didn’t know me as well as you thought, did you, James?
There was a surprising bitterness to that.
For her part, Tsuru was nodding.
“Very loose structure, then,” she murmured. “Hard to maintain a thing like that with slaves. They must really have something over you, huh?”
“Brands,” he agreed. “Base of the neck. Built to kill us if we step out of line.”
If the proclamation caught the woman by surprise, not a hint of it appeared across her features.
Caleb gave the woman a shrug and started peeling off his shirt, noting with a touch of amusement how James again averted his gaze, his cheeks red.
They’re just abs, James. Grow a pair.
He dropped covering to the floor, and turned his back to the older woman, putting the brand on display. He caught Tasha gazing over at him, her eyes flicking momentarily to his chest, and shot her a smirk. She glowered back at him, before returning her attention to her task.
A moment later, he felt a touch upon his neck, the old woman murmuring something to herself as she prodded and poked the skin. He didn’t care.
“Hmm,” she grunted. “Energy siphon. Tied in deep, too. It must see a lot of use.”
“Every day,” he muttered. “They like to keep me at about a fifth of my power. Stop me getting any ideas.”
“And the familiar?” she asked, tapping the tattoo that ran across his arm with the side of her thumb. “Seems recent. They know about it?”
“No,” he chuckled. “I stole it. Last hunt they sent me on was to pick up some of those hunting birds after the elves attacked. I kept one. I’m a dead man if they notice it, but it seemed like the best chance I’d get. It’s how I found James.”
At his back, Tsuru simply swore.
“Damn,” she muttered. “I’d hoped we’d killed them all before any third parties got involved. Any idea what they want with them?”
“Just that they wanted a breeding pair.”
“Well, good luck trying to make any more of them. Those things aren’t built to survive on Earth long term. Not enough magic in the air.”
Caleb shrugged. At least that explained why his own bird seemed to be growing weaker lately.
“Dunno what to tell you there. All I know is they wanted em and we did it for them.”
Behind him, the old woman simply grunted, then he felt the touch upon his back ease off.
“Well, put your shirt back on. We’ve other things to do.”
The next few hours passed at a glacial pace, to Caleb’s view. Irritable as James’ grandfather may be, his grandmother seemed almost brutally efficient. First came the questions, ranging from his training as a hunter, to the tasks he had performed, to the points of contact he held with the organization at large. The woman showed not even the barest hint of frustration at how little information his experiences had allowed him to glean.
Then came the tests of strength and skill, pitting him first against Tasha, then against Hideyoshi’s golem as they measured each of his powers in turn. He picked up more than a few new bruises there. Neither Tasha nor her teacher seemed to have any wish to be gentle with him.
James observed all this at first, curious; but over time, his attention seemed to wane, and he wandered off to where the stranger sat with the dog, the two of them chatting in voices too low to really make out, the dog shifting over on its side to allow James to rub its belly. When she caught him glancing at them, Tsuru said the girl’s name was Tuva. That was all the explanation he got.
Eventually, Hideyoshi pulled away from the seemingly constant bouts of training and retired to the open kitchen, pulling a pack of steaks from the fridge and rubbing them with herbs, before roasting them with fire directly from his hands alongside some chopped potatoes.
The aroma made Caleb’s mouth water. His masters rarely supplied him rations more complex than an instant pizza. He almost cried when they offered one to him.
It was while the six of them ate, Caleb doing what he could to savor the experience of actual food, that things seemed to finally come to a head.
“So you’re telling me there’s nothing,” Tsuru murmured evenly, watching James pick at his potatoes. “Nothing at all, that might tell us who these people are, or what the hell they want?”
“Well, no,” Caleb muttered. “I have a pretty good idea, I think. It’s just I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”
“Oh?” She turned to look at him, everyone besides Tuva doing the same in turn. “And what’s that?”
“To be honest,” he shrugged. “I think they want to start a war.”