Preston and Camellia’s first morning at Briar Manor was one of rice porridge and a variety of pancakes. Every bit of it, including the maple syrup, was as homemade as it was delicious. Qiu insisted on them trying syrup on their porridge, and neither was disappointed.
“So, Preston, Camellia,” said Mr. Briar as the chefs returned to clear away dirty dishes, “is there anything you have interest in doing while you’re here? Since you’re doing me such a huge favor, the least I can do is offer my home in its entirety to you.”
Camellia shrugged, but Preston was quick to ask, “Do you have a pool?”
Briar smiled. “Of course we have a pool! I’d be happy to show you to it after breakfast.”
“I’ve got it, Dad; I already offered to show them around,” Hulin said.
“I think I’ll pass,” Camellia said, then thanked Zhang Ting for taking her plate. “I don’t have a bathing suit or anything, so . . .”
“If you’re interested, I probably have one that fits you,” Veronica offered. “We look to be about the same size.”
“Is it black?” Preston asked. “Camellia can’t wear anything that isn’t black. She’s weird about colors.”
“Please stop talking,” Camellia said.
Veronica laughed. “Actually, it is black.”
“There,” said Preston to Camellia. “Now, you have no reason to be a buzzkill.”
Camellia bit her lip with a sideways glance at Preston. She had hoped to do some exploring, find her way around and perhaps scout out anything that would point to an anomaly. But she certainly wasn’t opposed to a relaxing swim in a rich person’s indoor pool. “All right. Thank you, Veronica; I appreciate your generosity.”
“Of course!” said Veronica. “I hardly ever use it, anyway. You’re free to borrow it anytime while you’re here. We can go get it now, if we’re free to go, Dad?”
Briar dismissed his children, and so Veronica started off toward her bedroom. Camellia tagged along, leaving Hulin to show Preston to the pool. Veronica’s room was one of the more easily accessible rooms in the mess of staircases, being only one shift of gravity away. It was a spacious and organized room, decorated elegantly.
Veronica opened a door on one side of the room and stepped into a walk-in closet. She began sifting through one rack of clothes. “By the way, I would like to formally apologize for anything Hulin may say or do. He likes to think he’s charming, but he’s not. At all.”
Camellia chuckled. “I’ve met considerably creepier guys. Hulin seems pretty cool.”
Veronica rolled her eyes. “He’s just very embarrassing, sometimes.”
“I get it. I work with Preston, after all.”
Veronica turned back to Camellia, a two-piece swimsuit in her hands. “You two seem close.”
“Not at all,” Camellia said, slightly defensive. “We’ve only worked together a handful of times, and he’s still managed to annoy me more times than anybody else on the team.”
Veronica snorted. “Boys, amirite?”
“Don’t I know it.”
Veronica handed Camellia the black suit with a grin. “You can try this on in here, if you want.”
“Cool, thanks.” Camellia took the suit and Veronica left the room. She changed into it; it fit well. The top was a classic bra and the bottoms high-waisted briefs that reached just above her hips. Suffice to say it was satisfactory.
When Camellia left the closet, Veronica complimented how she looked and offered to lead her to the pool. With a trip through the stair maze, Veronica dropped Camellia off at the pool and wished her luck. Preston and the two youngest kids were already there, splashing around and making a lot of noise off the echoey walls. Hulin sat on the edge, his legs dangling in the water. Camellia thanked Veronica once more and slowly inserted herself into the chaos.
“Camellia!” Preston shouted. “Catch!”
He tossed a beach ball at her head, and she didn’t hesitate to smack it away from her. It slapped him in the face before he could catch it.
“Ouch,” he said. Qiu and Rosie howled with laughter.
“You got beated by a girl!” Qiu said.
“Girls can easily beat boys!” said Rosie indignantly, crossing her floatie-covered arms.
“I let her do that,” said Preston matter-of-factly. “Take notes, Qiu. This is how you be a true gentleman.”
Qiu made a face. “If I have to get hit in the face with beach balls to be a gentleman, I don’t want to be one.”
“Don’t worry, Qiu,” Hulin said. “You are far from being one.”
Qiu sighed dramatically. “That’s a relief.”
Camellia chuckled, dropped her jacket by the door, and sat beside Hulin.
“Camee-a and I know that being a lady is much more fun,” said Rosie.
Camellia raised her eyebrows. “Is it?”
Rosie nodded. “When you’re a lady, you don’t have to do anything, and the gentlemen will do everything for you ’cause they have to.”
Camellia hummed. “I like your definition of being a lady.”
“Thank you! And I like your hair! I want pink hair like that.”
“It would look fantastic on you.”
“There’s something to jot down about Rosie,” Hulin said. “Very humble.”
Preston had gotten out of the pool and was rooting around through a bin in the back of the room. “You guys have any water guns?”
Qiu and Rosie looked at each other. “Water guns!” they both hollered, scrambling out of the pool to join Preston.
“Oh, boy,” said Hulin. “Jameson had to take those away last time they played with them.”
“Oh, I’m sorry — are they not allowed to have them?” Camellia asked, continuously embarrassed by Preston’s antics.
“Ah, it . . . should be fine. They were just fighting over them. Should be all right having an adult play with them.”
Camellia snorted. “The furthest from being an adult you can possibly get while still being an adult.”
The three had grabbed their guns and were filling them up eagerly.
“Hulin, join us!” Qiu said.
Hulin sighed. “I suppose I could.” He got up and moved toward the toy tub, and the kids cheered.
“Come on, Camellia; you, too,” Preston said. He shot water at her with his gun.
“Stop it,” she said. “I’m not playing.”
He squirted her again, hitting her in the eye with a full stream of water. She wiped her eye with a scowl. “Quit that.”
Hulin grinned, returning with his own water gun. “If you want to get away from the madness, you can hit the hot tub.”
Camellia stood. “I will. Thank you.”
She grabbed up her jacket on the way and got away from the pool before war could break out. She pulled up Spotify to drown out the noise and sank into the warm water. It was beginning to make up for her lost relaxation time the previous night.
That stopped when she felt the water getting too warm. She checked the temperature setting and found it rapidly rising without interference. “What the—?” She pushed the down button. It did nothing. She tried to push the up button in hopes of getting it unstuck, but it only sped up the process. Nothing worked — the hot tub seemed to be intent on boiling her alive.