Chapter 29 [Twinkling stars]
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A serenade of nightly woods and blinking stars. Tranquility at its finest. After a long day of hard work and pain. The night became a respite for the exhausted ones as their body rested on the hardened dirt and the noise inside their mind reduced exceptionally. The campfire emitted a warmth that kept the area from going too cold, just enough between temperature to caress their bodies into slumber.

Yet, one of them, Victor, found himself choking out of nothing. He had to wake himself up and took a deep breath before looking around him to make sure that he was safe. It was a nightmare, a battle was ongoing, man killing man, dismembered corpse littered the field and mid-battle he started choking. From choking to puking large amounts of water, and it was drowning him.

Anyway, it was all just a nightmare. “Tea, my prince?” Gabriella sat beside him, a cup of tea readied in her hands.

“Don't you sleep?”

“Apology for the confusion, I just woke up to get some tea for myself..”

Victor let out a sigh and when his gaze cast downward, he was surprised to find Kiko snuggling beside him. He was careful to not wake her up as he tried to lean against the log behind him. A few squirms of pain escaped from his lips, but after taking a long quiet breath, he turned to Gabriella.

“Tell me, why are even you here? Shouldn't you be back home?”

“I’ve come to serve you once more, my prince.”

“Prince? I’m no prince. You know that. Why are you truly here, Gabriella?”

“It may be hard to believe, sir, but my answer was real as the moon.”

“Are you fully aware that you’re throwing life away just to serve a nobody like me?”

“You are not a nobody, sir. You’re my prince. I’ve sworn my loyalty to you and only you. I will not disavow it. Not even an exile can deter me from fulfilling my duties.” Gabriella clenched her hands against her chest and closed her eyes.

“I’m pretty sure you’re making the biggest mistake of your life. If I order you to leave, do you have any place else to stay?” Victor directed a raised eyebrow at The Maid.

“Please have mercy on me, my prince.”

“Of course, you don't.” Victor sighed. “Don't call me ‘Prince’. I got nothing to do with that, or anything related to Frozehaven.”

“Time has a healthy habit of changing things, my prince.”

There was a moment of pause before Victor his gaze at Gabriella once more. “How’s...my mother?”

A smile appeared on her face. “Healthy. She had a baby.”

“So, they already had a replacement for me. Glad to know that everybody had moved on.”

“My prince, I’m sorry but no one can replace you. Besides, aren't you glad to have a little brother?”

“Yeah right. He’s not my little brother. Our blood may be the same, but I’m not a part of that family. I have no family.”

“You would be surprised, my prince.” She took a glance at the people surrounding the campfire, making sure that they were asleep, and turned her gaze back at Victor. She opened her suitcase and presented a letter to Victor.

Kiko let out a troubled purr before she slowly opened her eyelids and saw Victor fully awake. She rubbed her eyes and crawled closer to him with a frown on her face. Gabriella stored the letter back into her suitcase

"Did I wake you up?" asked Victor as he gently rubbed her shoulder. Sure it was slightly painful for him to move his hand, but he felt it was needed. She shook her head slightly and laid her head against him.

“Nightmare?”

Kiko replied with a half-hearted nod.

“How about a cup of tea?”

She shook her head again.

“A bedtime story?”

Kiko paused a bit at the offer and nodded her head.

“Gabriella, would you mind?” Victor turned to the maid, but Kiko tugged on his shirt, drawing his attention to her.

“My prince, I don't think she wants ‘me’ to tell her a bedtime story.”

“You want me to tell you the bedtime story?” Victor lowered his gaze on Kiko, and she nodded shyly while biting her lower lips.

“Okay then. Hmmm. Might be hard since I barely remember a few of them. So, I’m going to wing it. There once lived a...Princess?” Judging from her engrossed gaze, Victor had picked the right main character.

“A Princess who lived in a big and majestic castle in the sky. She was alone. Alone in her big castle with no one else in it, but unbeknownst to her, underneath that castle held a fallen beast, a Dragon. Chained to the pillars that held the castle itself. It growled and roared at anyone who dared come near it as if there was anybody else in that castle to roar at.”

“One day, she wandered too far…can you guess what she found?”

“The Dragon?”

“Correct. The first thing that the dragon did when it saw her was it roared. So loud and deafening that the entire castle shook vigorously. However, the Princess did not feel fear. Guess what she felt?”

“Angry?”

“Not even close… It was a relief.”

“Relief?”

“Yeah. For the first time in her life, she wasn't alone anymore.”

“What happened next?”

“I’ll continue tomorrow if only you would go to bed first.”

Kiko pouted at first, but eventually, she let out a big yawn. She laid her head against Victor and went back to sleep. Gabriella looked at Victor, feeling a bit sad. He noticed it and turned his gaze at the maid.

“What’s the matter?” whispered Victor.

“A bittersweet memory just resurfaced. Back in the days, you always loved my bedtime stories.”

“I certainly did.”

The rest of the night went on uneventfully. By the time the sun had come, they had already left their camp using the abandoned carriage and were heading to the nearest town. Victor gazed upon the remnant of scenery as they rode down the path. Suddenly, he felt a sudden shift in himself when he saw the familiar settings. Peach color leaves rained on the path behind them before slowly revealing the source of the pinkness. It came from the trees that lined the path they took.

A tear escaped his eye, Gabriella took notice and was concerned by it. “Are you okay, my prince?” Her question seemed to drag everyone’s attention to him except for Kenn where he just focused on the road ahead while gripping the reins tightly.

“It’s nothing.”

“Town ahoy, mate,” yelled Yemen gleefully.

They entered the town without any problem, stopping at the nearest merchant. Kenn seemed to be talking to the merchant while Yemen helped unload the material. Victor on the other hand wandered the town with Gabriella and Kiko. The town was different in atmosphere from the city he had been living in. Most noticeable was the noise, it was a lot quieter than the bustling street and fewer people around. Yet the town seemed nicer in comparison to the city.

Must have been nice to live here. However, a certain building caught his attention. With a bunch of kids, loitering the lawn. He quickly recognized what that place was and that when he turned his gaze at Kiko. However, he turned to Gabriella, “Why don't you take Kiko to get something to eat while I handle some business.”

Kiko turned her worried gaze at Victor, but he brushed her concern with a smile. “Don't worry about me, I’ll be right behind you. I just need to meet someone first.”

“Come on, I know a good place for us girls to get something to eat.” Gabriella extended her hand to the child and she took it with a heavy heart. After they left Victor behind, he walked toward the building.

It doesn't take long for Victor to finish his business. After he talked to the person in charge there, Victor took a lonely stroll up a hill. A sudden greet caused Victor to stop in his tracks, he turned and a woman with twin buns raised her hand to get his attention. She looked familiar, and that when it crossed his mind.

“Nona?”

“Victor?”

“I think you've mistaken me for someone else,” he turned his gaze away and tried to leave.

“No. Wait! I know it’s you.”

“I’m sorry, but I think you had the wrong person.”

“You save us!“

“I did, but, at what cost? I shouldn't get involved in the first place.”

“And yet you did, when no one else would…Grandma passed away. Not because of you. It was because of old age. She told me everything and she told me that she regretted everything. She admitted she did some bad stuff and my family did too because of greed.”

“What is your point?”

“I don't know. I'm just mumbling, but look, I’m not here to blame you or that woman for what happened. I just want to say ‘thank you’, and I’m not sorry when my grandma tried to threaten your friend. She did what she did to protect me and I understood that. However, I still owe you a life debt for saving us from that gang.”

“Life debt?” His gaze cast downward, there wasn't much to think about because he had found the answer. “How much you are willing to pay.”

“Ahh, I will try to pay it if the request is reasonable. I’m not that rich or powerful, but I’ll try. Also, please don't request… anything weird and perverted thing, ok?!” Her face was blushing as she pulled back a lock of hair behind her ear.

“Of course, not. I just want some help with some things.” Victor quickly replied as he cleared his throat.

Nona brought Victor to the last place he thought he would set foot on. The same shop where he tasted his first noodles. Well, not quite the same shop, bigger, more of a humble restaurant now. In front of the restaurant, a few seatings had been set up and a bunch of his friends had sat around it. All of them were waiting for him with a smile on their faces. Victor sort of waved his dangling hand before sitting beside Kiko.

An approximately five bowl of delectable noodles was served personally by the restaurant owner; Nona. Thick strings drowned in thick chicken stock, vibrant green vegetables littered on top of it, and a half of a boiled egg floated above all of it. This was certainly a heartwarming meal like he remembered, easy to digest, enough to quench the thirst and hunger.

“What’s this?” asked Kiko with wide eyes.

“Bloody hell, kid. You never had noodles before?”

“Of course, she hasn't. Did you forget the cage thing? At least be a little tactful.” scolded Kenn. Yemen moved his mouth to exaggerated Kenn’s nagging expression. That was a bad choice for Yemen as Kenn flung a chopstick at him. Luckily, as a master marksman - slash - pirate, he was able to dodge it easily. Yet, his hubris got the better of him as another chopstick hit his forehead.

“Don't mess up my restaurant,” chided Nona as she and Gabriella proceed to pick up the chopsticks.

“Is it bad that I never had any noodles before?” asked Kiko with a pout.

“Don't listen to them. When I was your age, I never had noodles too. Keiko brought me to this place, where I first tasted noodles.”

“Keiko?”

“Yeah, she was like a second mother to me, but more strict and emotionless sometimes, and...a bit grumpy most of the time.”

“Oh, so what are noodles made from?”

“They were made from wheat!” answered Yemen with gusto.

“No. That’s wrong,” groaned Kenn.

“It is made of rice.”

“Rice? Woah…” said Kiko with wonder in her eyes.

“I know right,” said Victor as he encouraged her awe.

They enjoyed their meals together. Laughed and chuckled. Joked and argued. Mostly they were having such a fun time together that the real world around seemed minuscule to the present. All seems well, but another trouble is brewing. Victor knew it. However, he wanted to be in this moment as long as he could because compared to what’s going to happen next, this felt heavenly.

 

***

 

After a long climb, Victor had arrived at the small shrine with a large red gate. He walked through the gate and found Kenn waiting for him on the small steps of the shrine. They both looked at each other before Victor broke eye contact and headed to the pile of stones: stacked on top of each other to look like a tombstone.

He laid his hand against the smooth surface. In front of it, laid a hilt with no blade, the Katana that was once wielded by Keiko and Victor. It was rested there by none other than Kenn, and Victor knew it. The air shifted when his ally stood behind him.

“I wish things had been different.”

“I wish you hadn't given up on her, but we can't all have our wishes.”

Kenn set his downcast gaze on the dirt in front of his foot.

”If you wish it then...my life is for you to take.”

“What are you talking about? I don't need your life. I just wanted to be left alone.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“What I mean is all of this slice of life that I never had isn't going to last long, and deep down, I always knew.” Victor raised himself and bumped into him before walking away.

“What are you planning, Victor?”

Victor let out a sigh, “I’ve been thinking. Long and hard. There isn't a place for me here, and I am a danger to the people around me. I can't wait, no, I won't wait until I lose another one I care about. So I’m leaving.”

“You’re leaving? Who’s going to take care of her after you leave?”

“I’ve made an arrangement.”

“Are you that cruel to give that little girl hope and snatch it away just like that? No, don't answer that. You are set on this, aren't you?”

“There’s nothing I could do. I’ve no choice.”

“Everyone has a choice, Victor. Besides, where would you go? What is so important that you have to leave us?”

“My prince, are we ready?” Gabriella stepped through the gate with her suitcase in tow and two horses on standby.

“Back home, Kenn. Back to where it all started.”

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