"Victor?" A soft tone greeted from the doorway.
The Queen stood in the doorway to his bedroom. Victor buttoned up the last pin on his jacket before turning to face his mother. A halfhearted smile was beamed at him, but her gaze was dripping with sadness. Her expression was in between the feeling of guilt and joy as she walked toward him.
"My Queen? It's late, what are you doing here?"
"I thought it would be more appropriate calling you that."
"You're not a stranger here, Victor. You're my son."
"I wish that was true, but why are you here?" Victor poured two cups of tea on the small table right next to him. Lillian grabbed one of the cups and proceeded to blow the steam away before taking a sip.
"I just wanted to see my son."
"You mean your ex-son." A startled gaze was directed at Victor.
"I did not replace you, Victor. Nobody did." Her tone was dug deep as she stared at Victor with an intense gaze.
However, a short laugh escaped Victor and disturbed the serious mood, "I know you didn't. I was mostly kidding. Don't worry about it, it's not like you had a choice, not with him."
"It's true then, you're still mad at your father."
"Mad? An understatement of the century. Furious, more like it, but that was a long time ago. Nowadays it's just subtle resentment."
“Is that how you truly feel?” The King stood in the doorway as imposing as he always was. Victor was surprised but he hid his subtle confusion in his calm expression. The King entered after nodding his head at Lillian.
“Sure, come in. Anyone else?”
Prince Virgil entered his room with Michelle behind him. Afterward, Gabriella showed up, a bit disheveled in appearance as if she was getting ready in a hurry. Victor let out a sigh as he looked at the people in his tiny room, feeling a bit cramped.
“You know what? Save whatever you want to say and follow me. I was planning to go out, but now all of you are here then why not get something to eat as well. Aside from the castle’s pantry.”
Without glancing back, Victor walked out of the room and down the hallway. Gabriella quickly patted herself back to proper. She grabbed the coat by the bookcase and chased Victor after bowing at the other Royal Family.
“Are they behind me?” asked Victor softly at Gabriella after she catches up to Victor.
A smirk appeared, somehow Victor had brought all of the Royal Family out of the castle and rode a carriage along with him. A group of soldiers followed them, and the one who’s on the reins was none other than Isaac. Prince Virgil kept peeking out of the window, a bit worried about the changing scenery. While Lillian and the King remained unbothered by the sudden outing.
“Isaac, somewhere where we can get good food and drinks.”
“Yes, sir,” shouted Isaac as he took a left turn, down a tight alleyway.
The carriage halted in front of a tavern in the middle of nowhere. Not a single shop can be seen in that dark lonely alleyway. The door was opened by Gabriella and Michelle, Victor and the royal family climbed out and was led by Isaac into the tavern.
Despite the dark and somber exterior, inside the tavern was the opposite of it. Warm and homely lit by a couple of lanterns. The soldiers made their way first before The Royal Family could enter. There were already quite a few guests inside, wearing cloaks to cover their identity.
“Uncle! It's good to see you.” Isaac greeted the Barkeeper.
“Isaac, what brought you here?”
“An acquaintance of mine is seeking good food, and none came to mine except for your tavern, uncle.”
“Your Highness!” The Barkeeper bowed his head immediately when his eyes wandered at the people besides his nephew.
“Victor?” A child drooped his hood; a dark-skinned girl with big brown eyes and chocolate-colored hair stood from her chair with a giant smile on her face.
“Kiko?” A perk up eyebrows propped on Victor’s face as Kiko rushed in for a snug embrace.
“Bloody hell, we finally found you.”
“It’s their ideas not mine, well, not like I disagree with it.” Kenn shrugged his shoulders.
“Kenn, you’re here too?”
“Who are these people, Victor?” Lillian turned her gaze at the mismatched group.
“Friends. No. Family, I’ve made along the way.”
“Thank you for taking care of my son.” Lillian nodded at the group as a sign of gratitude.
“You know what? Why don't you all join us for a late-night dinner?”
“Are you sure?” Kenn turned his gaze at the imposing man beside Victor and judging from the way he dressed this man must be powerful. It would be impolite for them to share a table with such important people so suddenly.
“Sit,” said The King, it was an invitation more or less, but it felt like a command.
As the soldiers shifted the tables and chairs for the Royal family, the door opened and revealed Julius with quite a few guests. Victor was surprised that all of the guests were acquaintances of him. He stumbled forward but managed to keep himself upright before finding his stable footings.
“Li?” A Yakawa woman who had helped him during his darkest time.
“It’s good to see you, but I think you may be more surprised when you set your sight on her,” Li gestured at the woman beside him.
“Haruhi, I thought you left?”
“I did. Here I am. The moment I heard the news about you coming home, I immediately tried to find you and I found you, Vic. Thanks to the gentlemen right beside me.” She gestured at Julius with a smirk on his face.
“Come. Join us.”
The Barkeep brought out a tray of ale and served it alongside a dish of grilled meat. Virgil was wary of the food, but Julius showed no hesitation as he bit the meat and drowned it down with ale. A satisfied smile appeared and The Barkeep let out a sigh of relief. Lillian and Victor took a sip of the ale while Virgil tried the meat and continued to try it. It was different from the regular meal he had in the castle, more raw and brimmed with explosive flavors.
“You know what it tastes like?” asked Kenn at Virgil.
“Correct, but not quite.” He glanced at Li as she chatted with Kenn. “Hope.”
“No matter how deep you fall, no matter how tired you are, no matter how much pain you are in, good food is more true than your sight. Besides, an army can’t survive alone with stale bread and flavorless water.”
“But an army can survive with only stale bread and flavorless water.”
“Their body may, but not their spirit. A motivated soldier is worth more than five beaten soldiers.”
“Bloody hell this is some good ale! A compliment to The Barkeep!” cheered Yemen at the top of his lungs.
Kiko pinched the side of Victor’s pants and caused him to turn his attention at her, “Yes?”
“Why did you leave? Was it me?”
“Ah.” Victor paused and took a moment to answer, but Virgil interrupted them. “That’s confidential, it’s not for someone like you to know.”
“I need to fix my own mess, alone. I thought leaving you behind with Nona would be better.”
“I can help you fix your mess. I’m not like the other girls. I’m strong. I can fight.”
“I know you--”
“Strong, a little girl like you? You must be joking?” Virgil chuckled slightly as he looked at her with judging eyes.
“Sure, I’m no brute, but I'm pretty sure, I can beat you in a fight.”
“Care to put your money where your mouth is?”
“Calm down, both of you.”
“Prince Virgil You have my permission.” The King gestured at the soldiers to clear the middle of the room for them.
“You must be joking?”
Kiko stood up and walked to the middle of the room with her sleeves tucked. Prince Virgil took off his jacket and unbuttoned a couple of pins near his neck before making his way to Kiko. No weapons, only fist, a non-verbal rule they both agreed on. The contestants check out each other with their glaring gaze as they limber up before the fight.
“Bloody hell! Go for it, Kiko. Show him some,” cheered Yemen.
“It’s okay, Victor. He’ll be fine, have faith in your little brother.”
“They’ll be fine. They won't hurt themselves that much,” said Kenn as he placed his hand on Victor's shoulder.
“My money on Kiko.”
“Nothing wrong with a bit of gambling.”
“My money on Prince Virgil,” said Isaac as he took out two pieces of silver coins and placed them on the bar. Other customers started putting their coins on the bar as they watched the fight with sheer excitement. Lillian sneakily put her coins on Virgil’s pile while Haruhi and Kenn placed theirs on Kiko’s pile.
With a single drop of water, the fight began, Kiko acted first with a quick rush at the Prince. Judging by her movement, she was aiming for his head. Virgil predicted that and moved to block the first attack with a single arm before launching his right fist at her. Kiko saw the incoming fist and grabbed hold of his wrist before pulling him closer for a headbutt causing both of them to stumble back.
Virgil shook the ache away but quickly recovered before Kiko rushed in for a palm strike. He sidesteps to the left and places a quick jab underneath Kiko’s side ribs causing her to wince in pain. She retaliated by stomping her enemy foot. Virgil tried to back away, but his foot was still stuck underneath hers. Kiko pushed his knee down before swinging her leg at his head. Virgil managed to block it with his arms, but just barely as her leg pushed his arms against his head.
Heaving his breath, Virgil took hold of Kiko’s leg and pushed it upward causing the girl to lose her balance. Virgil was given a chance to recover, and he didn't waste it as he rammed his shoulder against her chest and slammed the girl to the floor.
The audience looked over the messy fight, unable to predict who would win.
Kiko put her knee between herself and the Prince and then used her leg to launch him over to the side. They both quickly stood up, wiping their sweats and panting. With a battle cry, Kiko and Virgil charged toward each other with their fists ready.
However, as fast they are, they both punched each other in the face and collapsed to the floor. As they lay on the floor, the audience cast their wide eyes onto them. They were surprised that it ended in a draw so they had to look at each other with raised eyebrows just to confirm that it happened.
Victor lifted his hand. "It's a draw. So all the money goes to the two of them."
A burst of laughter exploded as they clapped for the fainted fighters. It was certainly a good fight, Lillian walked to his son while Victor and Kenn kneeled beside Kiko. Lillian stroked Virgil’s cheek before raising him with her arms while Victor lifted Kiko with his arms. She looked at Victor and smiled, an audible groan escaped his younger brother’s lips.
“I think it’s time for us to head home. Truly, my precious son, it’s good to see you again despite the circumstance.”
Victor passed Kiko to Kenn and followed them out of the tavern. In front of the carriage, Lillian stopped and turned to Victor. She extended her hands and Victor took hold of it as he stared at his younger brother’s fainted face.
“He's a good kid.”
“Your little brother may work too hard, but he got a good heart just like you. I just wish that you both could spend more time together.”
“I wish for that too, mom, but different circumstances prevent me from doing so.”
“Just make sure you come home safe, okay? And if you ever need to run, just run, and keep running until you are safe,” said Lillian as her lips trembled while her eyes slowly soaked with tears.
“I’ll be fine, Mom.”
“I know you will, but I can't help myself but worry.”
“Lillian?” The King called as he opened the door for her.
“Calm down David, I still need to hug my son before his departure tomorrow. Here hold Virgil for me, and please don't hit his head against the door.” It was the first time for Victor to see his mother talk back to his father, and he had expected him to explode with anger. However, the cold-blooded man only let out a chuckle before taking Virgil off her hands.
“Yes, my love.” The King brought his son into the carriage and gently placed her on the seat.
Lillian found Victor’s surprised face to be amusing, she grabbed him and embraced him with all her strength. So gentle, yet firm, nothing he had experienced in his life can beat his mother's warm embrace. Too bad that this may be the last he ever experiences it after the war he is about to face tomorrow. Lillian shed a tear, it was neither sadness nor joy, perhaps guilt and regret.
She broke away from the embrace and stroked his cheek with a melancholy smile before making her way inside the carriage. The King now replaced where she stood with tight lips, he extended his hand for a handshake. A handshake? Now he knows the world just turned upside down. This cold man, this man in front of him who had exiled him without a blink of an eye, he offered his hand as a sign of emotions.
“Are you sure you’re healthy, my highness?”
“You think lowly of me, but I am your father, and still am.”
“A father who once sent his son to die in the wild.”
“I did what must be done for The Kingdom, I am a king first before I am your father. I’ll have my duties and it must be kept, no matter what.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Victor turned away, ignoring his hand, and walked back inside without looking back. It was hard for Victor to do this, but he just couldn't forgive this man, not after what he had done. The King lowered his chin and stared at his hand, but he raised his chin again proudly before making his way inside the carriage.