Author's Note: Now that Nanowrimo is over, I'm hoping to return back to regular writing. With that in mind, please enjoy this story that I randomly thought up of on a whim.

A Reluctant Master

The Artifact of Shirogane Alice (I)

"I'll be your personal use maid from this day onwards."

Large, blue eyes and dark, jet-black hair. It was clear from a glance that her features were not Japanese. Despite that, her Japanese was quite perfect, with only a slight accent marring her pronunciation. It was likely she had some foreign blood. The juxtaposition of thekanzashi in her long ponytail against her Western black-and-white maid outfit added on to her personal appearance's exotic mix of East and West. Her arms were crossed and her eyes were narrowed in a decidedly arrogant manner.

"What's the catch?" I asked. There were any number of questions in my head at the moment, but I decided to go with the most pressing concern.

She was beautiful. Far more than any girl I had seen in school. Leaving aside the obviously impossible arrangement of a young girl being the personal maid of a teenage boy such as myself, I would say that it was only natural for me to grow suspicious when a girl as attractive as her approached me, a boy who was the embodiment of the phrase 'plain and normal'.

"How rude. I am here out of the kindness of my heart, hoping to offer my assistance to a lost and helpless soul who is living on his own, and I am greeted with nothing but suspicion," said the girl who was standing outside my door.

"I was doing fine living on my own, actually. I'm not that good at cooking but I can make a few dishes. I've been doing other kinds of housework like cleaning the apartment for years. My parents are almost never home, after all. So all in all, I don't need your help."

"Don't be so sure about that. You're paying 100,000 Yen per month for my service, after all."

I closed the door and walked back to my laptop. Ah, it was a fine day. Maybe I'll work on the letter that Rei sent me -

"Quit hammering on the door!" I yelled over my shoulder.

"My image of you as an incomparably rude man has been cemented. You should open the door if you don't want my opinion of you to fall even further." Even in such a situation, she still remained calm and composed. In fact, it was amazing that she was able to keep her voice level despite her current physical exertions. The knocks on the door were pretty loud.

"How can you say that there is no catch and then demand 100,000 yen from me?! What happened to the kindness of your heart?! You're obviously some kind of con artist. Are these types of fraud popular these days?!"

Her answer came after a minute or two. "...I didn't set those conditions. Your father did."

SO THAT WAS IT!

I ripped out my phone from my pocket and jammed it next to my ear after punching in a few numbers.

"Hello, dad?"

"Ah, my beloved son. How nice to hear from you! Have you finally reached that age where you are beginning to miss your dear father?"

"Drop dead. I'd like to have the inheritance already."

My father choked back a sob on the other end of the line. "So? What do you want from your poor father who, by the way, does not have any kind of fortune for you to inherit?" he asked.

"...You sent me another one."

"Yes, I did. Do you have a problem with it?"

"I quite obviously do. I'm fine with helping others but I don't have 100,000 yen to pay her per month."

"Don't worry about that. I'll send the money to you. You just do your job."

The tone of his voice grew heavy. My father may not be the most serious man I know, but even he knew when it was necessary to stop messing around when it came to important matters. The scope of these important matters was extremely limited, however. My mother was one example of a topic that we didn't dare to joke about. Another matter that warranted the same level of attention was my father's profession.

There were various kinds of mystical items that appear every so often in this world. Nobody really knows why or how they appear, but these items have unimaginable properties that work very much akin to magic. In other words, there's an underlying principle that governs their use, but nobody watching knows what this principle is. The humans who discovered the first items a hundred years ago called them Artifacts, because of their ancient appearance. Unfortunately, the name turned out to be somewhat of a misnomer, as we later discovered that Artifacts take on all kinds of appearances, not just as antique objects.

Artifacts were usually benign, but sometimes they have dangerous side-effects. My father works for the government and it's his job to solve any problems that these Artifacts create. Due to an unlikely combination of bad luck and my own doormat personality, I managed to resolve an important case and am now constantly roped in to help with these problems despite my lack of qualifications or ability.

"Alright, alright. But why do these Artifacts always end up in the possession of beautiful girls?"

"Who knows? One theory says that Artifacts are instruments of God's will. In which case, it would make sense that they appear before those who will eventually become influential or important people."

"So physical attractiveness is of such importance to God? I don't think I want to believe in such a theory. Who came up with it, anyway?"

"I did, of course," my father replied cheerfully.

I hung up and placed the phone back in my pocket. There was nothing else important left to say, anyway. I opened the door and found the beautiful maid waiting behind it with her arms still crossed. Her expression was neutral, with no trace of annoyance. I really had to applaud her patience.

"Well, I more or less get the situation now. Come on in," I said, scratching the back of my head.

"Alright. Excuse me for intruding." She bowed carefully before entering my room. It seemed that she was actually taking this entire business very seriously. There could only be one real reason for this.

We settled ourselves at the coffee table that I usually used and looked at each other.

"Let's get straight to the point," I said, drumming my fingers on the table.

"You're here because of trouble with an Artifact, correct?"

"Yes."

"And I assume that this maid outfit that you're wearing is the Artifact?"

"Yes."

I sighed and rubbed my temples. As expected.

"Why didn't you just tell me that from the start? It would have saved us a lot of time and trouble."

She shrugged her graceful shoulders. "Your father told me that he would notify you. However, it was clear from the start that you had no idea who I was once I met you. With that in mind, I wasn't very willing to talk about my situation. It's embarrassing, don't you think?"

A light red tinge appeared on her cheeks as she spoke. Well, what she said was very true. A girl wearing a maid outfit outside of maid cafes would only be thought of as either strange or a maniac. She might even get accosted by strange men who had the wrong idea about her. It was only natural for her to be cautious.

"I suppose you're right. Let's get the introductions out of the way first, then. I'm Kurogami Shinya. I'll be in charge of your case from today onwards. Pleased to meet you."

"I'm Shirogane Alice. I'll be in your care from today onwards. Pleased to meet you, Master," said the girl in a maid outfit. She sat formally in the seiza style and lowered her head. She was probably half-Japanese, with her foreign blood coming from her mother. It went without saying that 'Shirogane' was a Japanese surname, and 'Alice' was one of those useful names that could be either Western or Japanese.

I averted my gaze away from her. No matter how I tried to approach the situation, it was just too crazy for a girl as beautiful as her to be calling me 'Master'. I am still a healthy, young male with all the usual urges, after all. Was this the magic of maid cafes?! I had never been in one before, but I could see the fearful attraction that they held now. "Do you really have to call me that?" I asked weakly.

"Yes. I am your maid, after all," said Alice. Was it really alright to say something like that with no hesitation?

"Well, I suppose that the Artifact is behind everything, then?"

"...Yes," she admitted.

I wondered what the slight pause was about, but decided to ignore it for the time being. It was more important for me to know how the Artifact functioned.

"Well, as I said earlier, I will be in charge of your case, Shirogane-san. I am not a qualified Artifact handler, but for various reasons I have become a trusted aide of the association. I can only hope that you will trust me. I will do my best. So, let's start with your Artifact. What do you know about it?"

"Hold on for a moment, Master. Before I talk about that, there is something far more important that we must discuss."

"And what might that be?"

"Please do not call me by my surname. Don't you think it's strange for you, as my master, to use your personal maid's surname? Please call me Alice."

"Without any honorifics?!"

She leaned towards me, placing her thin fingers on the table. "Of course, Master," said Alice. I couldn't help but stare into her sapphire orbs. I have had, for various reasons, considerable interaction with many other attractive girls, which helped me keep calm in such a situation, but it was still distracting. This combination of half-Japanese beauty plus maid outfit was too strong!

"You know, I don't know what kind of misconceptions you have, but I'm sure it's quite normal for an employer to use his maid's surname," I said.

"You're absolutely wrong. Everyone knows that in Japan, rich boys have their own harem of beautiful maids and have their way with whoever they want every night. These boys certainly did not use any honorifics when speaking to their maids." Alice pointed a finger at me haughtily and smiled in self-satisfaction.

"Excuse me, but have you ever been in Japan before?"

"Actually, I have not before today."

"So how did you learn of such a thing, then?"

"From those thin books that I ordered online."

I really had to give her my respect. Not many people could so confidently base their opinion of a foreign country that they had never been to before on 18+ doujins. And just where did that self-confidence come from?

"Those books don't accurately reflect reality, you know." Also, does this mean that she expected me to do such depraved things to her tonight?!

"Perhaps so. But nonetheless! Call me by my given name, Master." Her finger was still pointed at my face.

"I really can't tell who the Master and who the servant is in this conversation."

Whoever heard of a maid as haughty as her?

"Fine, fine. I'll call you Alice, then," I said, flapping my hand at her. "Let's just get back to the main point, please." We had gotten far too side-tracked. Well, I didn't particularly mind calling a beautiful girl by her given name, but I wasn't about to admit that.

"Regarding how you will have your way with me, Master?" asked Alice. She tilted her head and stared at me.

"NO! And in the first place, I'm sure that you don't want me to do anything like that, right?"

"Of course not."

"Then why did you bring it up in the first place?!" I yelled, throwing up my hands into the air.

"...I had to check, of course. As a maid, I have to obey my Master and fulfill his desires..."

"So, the Artifact compels you to do so?" I was growing more and more certain that she would not talk about the Artifact unless I forcefully changed the topic of the conversation.

"...Yes."

I grew serious. "Hey, hey. Isn't that really dangerous? What was my father thinking when he sent you to me? And shouldn't you be more careful? This is no laughing matter, you know. Manipulation of free will is one of the most twisted things that an Artifact can do."

Once again, she shrugged with good grace. "How dangerous can it be? As a maid, I must have a master. Your father was a good person who helped me with the Artifact when nobody else could. He told me to believe you in before I came here, and so I decided to do that. There is no one else who can help me, after all. I can only place myself in your hands."

I clicked my tongue. How troublesome. "Fine. I'll do my best not to betray that trust."

A radiant smile graced her features. "Thank you."

"Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let's get back to the main topic for real. How does this Artifact function, and how did you acquire it?"

"I bought it while I shopping online," said Alice.

I raised an eyebrow. "Was it disguised as something else?"

The girl in the maid outfit shook her head. "No, it was not."

"...So you were shopping for maid outfits?"

Now it was her turn to arch her eyebrow. "Yes. Do you have a problem with that?"

"Well...No." I decided not to push my luck. There was time enough to find out more about her hobbies later.

"So I assume that you put on the outfit when it came?"

"Yes. Why would I buy an outfit and not wear it?"

There is no particular reason. I'm just asking some standard questions. Give me a break, please. Your Master is begging you, maid.

I kept such thoughts to myself and ploughed on. "So what happened when you put it on?"

Alice frowned and stroked her chin. "It's...hard to describe. I understood everything about the Artifact once I wore it. Rather than the information entering my head, it's more accurate to say that I could answer any question about it."

Yes, that sounded right. That was a common feature of many Artifacts. "So it's an intuitive type, then. That helps, at least. It's absolutely necessary to understand an Artifact in order to deal with it. Tell me about the main restrictions that the Artifact has imposed upon you, then."

She nodded. "Okay. For starters, I can't take off this maid outfit. Well, to be exact, I can, but I can't put on any other clothing. So I can bathe normally, but I can't wear anything else."

I properly observed the maid outfit that she wore for the first time. Some Artifacts had a special, defining feature that hinted at their supernatural origin. In the case of clothes, it could be something like an unbelievably brilliant gem adorning the fabric. A weapon-type Artifact might have cursed runes inscribed on it. Such details were subtle enough to the average person, but there were no differences whatsoever between the maid outfit that Alice wore and a regular outfit. It was no wonder that Alice had put on the Artifact without any hesitation.

It suddenly occurred to me that the girl in question was staring at me with half-open eyes. I must have gotten lost in thought, to not have noticed that until then.

"...Yes?"

"You were imagining me in the bath, weren't you?"

Oh, so that was it. Wait, doesn't it seem like you have a really bad opinion of me?

"What happened to placing yourself in my hands?"

"That is a separate matter, as it involves the Artifact."

"So what does this matter concern, then?"

"Your perversion, of course."

I pressed my fingers against my eyebrows. "I can't believe you actually said it."

"Was I wrong?"

"Yes, you were...Wait, that isn't even the problem here! Look, I know that this situation makes you feel uneasy, but I can't do anything about it! You'll just have to trust me. Or is there some other way to get around the Artifact's restriction? What is the exact effect that is forcing you to stay with me, anyway?"

"That is the second restriction. I have to work as a proper maid. This includes things like getting an actual salary, and helping out with the housework and all the other required duties. This is why I was sent to you, and why I need to you to pay my salary."

"My father is actually the one paying the salary, though...But I guess that's not a problem. Are there any other restrictions that the Artifact has placed upon you?"

"None, as far as I know. Those are the main restrictions."

"Hmm. Alright. Well, let's leave it at that, then." I got to my feet and looked around my room. It wasn't particularly dirty or untidy, but it was only natural for there to be some mess in a boy's room. Some books had been left on the floor near the shelves, and the bed had not yet been made up.

"Aren't you going to do anything?" Alice asked, reluctantly rising from the table.

"Nope. These things take time. I have no idea what the principle behind the Artifact is yet, so you can't reasonably expect me to have a solution right now," I said mildly. "But since you're so eager, you might as well help me clean up my room.

She crossed her arms and scanned the little areas of mess around the room. "Will that help?"

I shrugged. "It might. That's the thing about Artifacts, you never know what will work. At the very least, you'll be able to fulfil your duty as a maid in this way, and satisfy the Artifact's compulsion that you're under."

"Hmph. Well, I suppose that you have a point." Alice stretched out her hand. "Where do you keep your broom?"

"My broom? It's in this closet over...here..."

The reason behind the faltering of my voice was something seemingly innocuous - the sight of Alice's long, slender fingers. They almost seemed like that of a pianist's, and her milky, soft skin only served to accentuate the delicate fragility of her limbs.

Now, that was all very well, and I do admit that these were attractive features, but they did not bode well when it came to housework. In the first place, I should have realized that something was amiss when she asked for a broom. My floor wasn't particularly dirty. It was the untidy arrangement of stuff in my room that was the problem. Come to think of it, I still knew nothing about her background. I had guessed that she was half-Japanese, but that was it. Still, it's not like I can do anything about that right now. It'll have to wait until she was more comfortable around me.

"...Now, this is just a precautionary question, but have you done any housework before?"

"...No?"

Bingo!

"Alright, clear out of here, let the professional deal with it." I tried to push her out of the room before things escalated further, but she stood her ground.

"What professional? It's just cleaning! It's true that I have no experience, but surely I'll know how to do it if you teach me. It's necessary for me to learn such a thing, you know, since I have to fulfil my duty as a maid due to this Artifact." Alice tugged on the long, frilly skirt that covered her legs.

"Well, I've had bad experiences before with another girl who volunteered to clean my room for me."

Rei's kind-hearted attempts to do housework had never quite left my nightmares. They would keep me company at night, occasionally.

"You said you'd help me, wouldn't you?" Alice pointed an accusing finger at me.

Damn, she's already caught on to my weakness.

"Fine. It's true that this is something we need to deal with if we want to unravel the mystery of the Artifact."

That line might sound cool on its own, but we were really just talking about doing housework here. I dug around in my closet for the broom, resolving to keep a very close eye on Alice. There were some things in my room that I didn't want her uncovering as well, of course, such as the books under my bed, but let's not talk about that.