“Fennel, Sorrel, and Boxwood” Chapter 4

A few packages had come in the mail that morning and Mr. Wintch who got wind of it from a passing neighboring farmer hitched up his old horse, Thunder, to his milk wagon and proceeded to ride into town to pick them up. Mrs. Wintch thought it was high time to let Thunder out to pasture to enjoy the rest of her days in feeding bliss with the butterflies, but Mr. Wintch and even Thunder wouldn’t hear of it. Mr. Wintch was a grump when he wasn’t carpentering or riding, was what Mrs. Wintch told me. I decided to take her word for it.

It was half past eight when Mr. Wintch came home with the parcels and a few groceries, tea, bread, and jam mostly. I was sitting in the kitchen with Mrs. Wintch and Rue discussing some urban legends and lore by the seaside. Fennel was still fast asleep and wouldn’t budge until noon. The kitchen floorboards were warm in the morning, light filtering in through the shades of the windows heated up the floors and melted away all of the cold chill that seeped in overnight. We were all barefoot and having tea with biscuits when Mr. Wintch barged in with a tower of packages causing quite a stir with us and frightening the cat whose tail he stepped on.

“Oh, Gerald! Now I told you, you mustn’t try to bring in everything at once! Look at what you did to the poor cat!” Mrs. Wintch half-scolded, half-laughed as she tried to act as a pillar of support between him and the packages. “You’re not at the sprightly age of fifteen anymore, you know.”

“Woman, if I needed a timer to remind me of how old I was, I would’ve inherited my great-grandfather’s clock shop and left you here to rot long ago.” He huffed as he set most of the things down on the counter and floor.

“You big oaf, you plan to not have lunch, are you?” She placed her hands on the sides of her hips and glared.

“They make quite a lovely couple, don’t they?” Rue asked me.

“Yes, picturesque as a family can get.” I laughed with her.

“You take my words of advice, missies. One day when you’re old, try not to become like my old lady here, abusing her husband every time he walks through the door even when he does a fine job.” He grinned as he made a mad dash for the door after stealing a few biscuits from the tray, stuffing them into his coat pockets, and unsuccessfully dodging Mrs. Wintch’s broom.

“Oh, what would you know, you lumbering hooligan.” Mrs. Wintch chased him off and everyone laughed around the table.

“Girls, you listen to me, don’t ever marry someone like him who’ll only add to your backaches.” She sighed with a smile nonetheless as she returned to checking on the cranberry sauce over the stove.

“Well, you may fight, but I think your family is the very picture of love. I only wish my husband was here to bicker with me face to face.” Rue said.

“Oh, Rue.” Mrs. Wintch sat down next to Rue and held her small hands. “It’s tough when your love is thousands of miles away, but he’ll return to you, because he knows what a good person he has here. And that little boy of yours loves his papa so, I’m sure the both of you are doing something right.”

Rue smiled though the wrinkles weren’t there and her eyes shined with a luster of loneliness. Fennel had told me that his mother had been living at the seaside inn long before he was born. Mrs. Wintch had taken Rue in when she ran away from home was what I figured. Her and her husband never had any children so they took care of the runaways however they could. But I never dug deeper than that, it wasn’t my place to wedge into.

I decided to inspect the parcels on the counter. I knew which ones were mine immediately since I had written to my mother asking her to wrap them distinctly with the packaging supplies I had received from aunt Esmer last Christmas. I thought it a waste if no one were to use it while I was gone. These were the parcels wrapped in brown crinkly paper, tied with green waxed twine, and smelled faintly of peppermint sticks and lavender. Attached to each was a note card with my name and the address and for a finishing touch, a small paper rose. I knew she had sent me some of the soap she promised me she would from aunt Vicki’s last trip to Florence judging by the weight alone.

I pulled on the twine and lo and behold, a beautiful florentine box that was powdered with soap bits and confetti. I folded the kraft paper and tucked it into the pocket of my cardigan. Inside were four individual bars of soap that were carved into little cherubs holding water jugs. They were adorable and I couldn’t help but share with Mrs. Wintch and Rue who thanked me for the gift. The kitchen began smelling of honey and vanilla from the box alone.

I then grabbed my other packages and excused myself for a quick bath before breakfast.

After breakfast, I trotted out to the back stairway to inspect a few geraniums that I had planted a week ago in a plot of soil Mr. Wintch had just bricked a fence around. The sproutlings were beginning to break the soil and I was feeling rather excited about it. I jotted the growth progress down in my logbook and noticed a faint smell of cinnamon in the air and I took a good whiff. It was undeniably sweet and rather heavy the more you breathed it in. Unpleasantly so.

“That smells horrible.” Fennel said made his way towards me, plucking his nose shut between his fingers. In his other hand, he held onto a piece of toast. He had rushed to catch up to me, I see.

“It’s only cinnamon, Fennel. Albeit, much more than I can handle.”

“Where’s it coming from?” He took a good look around the area but scrunched his nose up when he couldn’t discern where it originated.

“I have an idea. Wanna come along?” I asked.

“Yeah!” He raced headfirst before I could say anymore.

So we made our descent into the forest where the two paths divulged in the woods, but instead of turning right to head to the beach as we did on most days, we took the left path which lead into town. Now most people wouldn’t take the time or trouble themselves by going off the beaten path, but the woods here were small and the most dangerous thing you might come across was a lost beaver with sharp teeth and a nasty disposition.

“Sorrel! What’s that?” The little adventurer asked when he saw the cabin in the clearing.

“I’d say that’s where the cinnamon’s coming from. Let’s go take a closer look.”

Now in most scenarios, one would avoid the random cabin out in the middle of the woods, but it’s different when you know who the crazy person was inside.

I knocked on the door three times and waited. Silence.

“Anybody home?” Fennel asked as he held my hand.

“Who goes out there?” An ominous voice asks behind the wooden door. A very sad attempt at acting ominous if you asked me.

“Rosemary, you better be baking a pie in there or I’m calling Mr. Wintch to tear down the cabin.” I threatened.

“Sorrel, is that you?” She asked, now panicked.

“Who else? I can smell cinnamon all the way up the stairs.”

The click-clack of the door could be heard and there in plain sight, standing timidly behind the door was perhaps the tiniest woman you had probably ever seen. Her name was Rosemary but Mrs. Wintch called her the village idiot.

I had met Rosemary only on a few occasions. The first was one night when I had taken a night stroll through the woods and stumbled upon her worn out body. She had fainted from inhaling too much “medicine” as she called it. The second time was when she was visiting the inn early in the morning to borrow a cup of sugar for a candle she was “baking.” The third was on the beach when she was collecting shells to build a “sculpture of Venus.” She wasn’t a lunatic if you were to ask me. She has some form of common sense somewhere, but she also has quite an overactive imagination as well.

Rosemary was well into her sixties but looked as though she had just graduated from kindergarten. Mr. Wintch told me that after her parents left her in town at the age of ten and never came back for her, well it traumatized her and so she never grew up. But I beg to differ. I could tell from looking at her that she had grown up, just differently. She is oftentimes illogical, but she is not so closed off to the world that she is lame. Many of us grew up and had responsibilities which we just inherited from our parents, but Rosemary was taken in by her rich relatives so she never had such burdens. She traveled often and rarely ever finds one place to settle for long. Everything was financially taken care of for her and she never really yearned for companionship or so she would have you believe. Her occupation wasn’t a doctor or a painter or a baker, but rather, a dreamer.

“Tea? Coffee?” She offered as Fennel and I stepped into her humble abode. The musty smell of lemongrass and cinnamon hit us both hard as we sat down on the sofa. For a cabin out in the middle of the woods it sure was a bright little place and adorned with strange tickets and souvenirs from all over the world.

“Tea would be fine, thank you.” I said and she raced off to the kitchen.

She had insisted that I treated her like a friend after I “saved” her life that one night. She wouldn’t hear of me calling her Miss anything and threw a small tantrum about age afterwards. I decided it was best not to rouse the beast.

“Sorrel, who is she?” Fennel asked quietly.

“Just a friend, Fennel. She won’t hurt you so long as you don’t question her too much.” Doubting what I said, Fennel sat hugging his knees.

“Well, here we go! I had a pot brewing this morning and thought I had too much. Who knew the gods were telling me I would be having guests.” She poured the brown liquid into teacups for us and then finally noticed Fennel beside me. “My, my, you didn’t tell me you were with child.”

I almost spat the tea across the room as soon as I heard.

“Oh no, I’m just looking after him! He’s not mine.” I laughed nervously. I noticed Fennel wouldn’t touch the tea and I sighed as I pat his uneasy head. I took my teacup and had a few sips, when he noticed this, he took his own teacup and sipped quietly taking social cues from me that it wasn’t poisoned or anything.

“Shame, really. I think you would make a good mother.” Rosemary had a smile that was worn, but it surely must’ve attracted some people to her in her early days. It was a winning smile even now.

“Oh, and you wouldn’t?” I tried to change the subject, still coughing a bit.

“Well, I never had the love in me to raise a child.” This, I knew was false.

The first time I visited her cabin, it was hard not to notice the baby clothes and socks in the drawers of her bedroom. I was only searching for a towel, but instead found new, never worn baby booties and bonnets for a girl and a boy. There were also photo frames she threw into drawers all through the house with her standing next to a burly mustached man about her age. Most of the photographs were probably taken when they were in their twenties. She told me she had went to college abroad and I had no doubt she had found love there…and then lost it. Returning to this town when she had nothing left.

“By the way, what are you brewing this time? Fennel and I felt quite dizzy with how much cinnamon is in the air.” I set the teacup down sine Earl Grey was not tasting like Earl Grey anymore.

“Oh, aromatic oils, my dear. My cousin runs an aromatherapy salon in the grand city. She told me all of her guests love to smell different things when they drink wine and discuss art. I could give you a bottle if you-”

“No!” Fennel and I both shouted.

“Ahem, what we mean to say is, it might be a grand aroma for the city, but I much prefer grass and soil around here, Rosemary. You know, natural nature smells.”

“Oh, shame. Well, I’m always open to new smells, so if you have a combination you would like me to make you, feel free to ask. I heard they’re selling quite well in the big city.” She didn’t seem disappointed in the least that we had rejected her offer.

“Yes, I can imagine. What with the cars and gases fogging up the atmosphere. But please try not to make too much. There’s only so much the residents close by can take.”

After we bid our farewells to Rosemary and returned to the inn, we ate some cookies Mrs. Wintch had just taken out of the oven. She smelled the cinnamon on us and asked if we were cats that got into catnip.

“What did the both of you roll in?” She sniffed Fennel’s hair and almost fell over. “To the bath, both of you! No one smells of spices at my table! Only food should smell that good.” And we laughed as we ran upstairs.

“Truc, the Poor Girl Who Met a Blind Fortuneteller, Fell in Love with a General, Became Rivals with a Fairy, and Broke the Prince’s Heart!” Part 1

annon

Part 1

This story took place in one of Truc’s many past lives.

Long, long ago, cause frankly I don’t remember the time period either, there was an ancient village located deep within the lands of old China. This was a time of war and gore, young love and forbidden romances, affairs and elopements, cheats and liars, evil and naive goodness, young maidens and fair men with horrible hygienic problems. Yes, this story took place in the lands of our forefathers long before even they were possibly even born. Or perhaps that’s too far back…Oh well, ahem, this story took place in perhaps one of the most bustling villages of the continent. In a trade town by the name of…what was it again? Appachawatta! Yes, in the ancient trade city of Appachawatta, was where our story began. It was a flourishing place ruled by a questionable prince, but we’ll get to that part of the story later. Where are we actually beginning? Well, our heroine should be coming along any moment now…Oh, here she comes now!

“Pots! Pots! Still trying to sell my pots!” An old lady walking by glanced into the window of a nearby hut and asked a young man lying on the floor, “Interested in buying a pot from this granny, boy?”

“No! I told you last week so I’ll tell you this week as well, go away you old hag!” He yelled ever so rudely and she went hmmph and left. But just then his grandfather ran out and apologized for his rude behavior. He then purchased yet another clay pot from the grandmother and bowed in deep respect. He offered her tea but she kindly refused, saying that she must be on her ware-selling way.

“I think you’d have an easier time selling your company, gran.” Her granddaughter, Truc, who was sitting in the back of the wagon offered her advice to the old lady. Instead, she received a knock on the head.

“Hush, child! Since when have I taught you such vulgar language!” Her grandmother scolded as they continued down the rocky path.

“It’s not something dirty, gran! I’m just saying the old dude looked lonely and wanted a person to talk to over a cup of tea.” Truc rubbed her sore head, snickering.

“Young people these days are so hard to understand.” She grumbled. “Truc, you listen to me, all men are schemers and scum and not a one in this world will treat you well. And they always leave you first. You’re better off fending for yourself.” Gramma Diana was in her womanly sage mode again. She had a horrible marriage of twenty-five years with her first deceased husband, and another horrible ten years with the next one who ran away after leaving her with a grand total of fifteen children to take care of. Who did the second husband run off with? Turns out it was their ugly, homely looking neighbor. So after that, Diana had to take care of all fifteen kids by herself. There were three girls and twelve boys, and you can imagine how horribly hectic and gruesome the time it took to raise them was. Her first daughter, the oldest and wisest one married a good man, the second married a schoolteacher and now currently lived in the countryside, as for the third youngest one, she gave birth to Truc, abandoned her on Diana’s doorstep one night with a vague note to feed the baby, and ran off to some other country with a foreigner. Diana had never been so ashamed in her life. As for her boys, six went to war and never came back, three died of illnesses at a very young age, and three were still alive, but they rarely visited so Diana had no idea what they were up to anymore. The last time one of them visited was five years ago. Truc was the only left who she could call her family.

“Gram, you just wait. I’m going to bag myself a great husband and show you there’s still hope.” Truc chirped cheerfully as she jumped down to push the cart out of a small pothole. Even though when she thought of the village boys she knew, her hopes were dashed immensely. None of them had “husbandly” qualities that rang out to her. Heck, most of them were even younger than her and the scholars who tend to walk by her house on the way to lessons wouldn’t even give her the time of day. Her future was bound to a common man and a common life, but she always found herself more fortunate than those who didn’t have such luxuries. But she knew one thing, and that was the right man for her was going to make the bells in her head ring and her heart pound.

“I hope he’s the one among the list I chose for you.” Her grandmother sighed. “Foolish child, you should start looking at those names I’ve written. I have wonderful old friends who’d love to see their sons married off by now.” Gram started urging for marriage for the second time that morning.

“Arranged marriages are soooo old-fashioned though.” Truc complained, groaning. But she knew her grandmother nitpicked through those men like looking for a tick in a dog to find the best man for her.

“Look, who’s talking.” Diana laughed. “You’re such a prude, I’ll die before I get to see any great-grandchildren.” Here’s Diana kicking up a fuss again.

“Gram, I’m only thirteen. Give me a break. And the last thing you need is more kids to look after.”

“Well, when I was twelve-blahblahblahblahblehbluh…” Diana went on and Truc knew the story of her life was going to take forever so she blocked gram’s words out. From out of the corner of her eye she spotted a young scholarly man dressed in robes of silky and dreamy blues make his way into a shop selling fabrics and her eyes followed. I’ve never seen him around before.

“Truc! It’s rude to stare!” Gramma Diana pinched her, making Truc wince out loud. “It’s also rude to scream out loud in public. You must scream quieter. No ‘YEEKS!’ or ‘YECKS!’ turn it into an ‘ick’ and ‘uck.’ People will notice less of you then. Honestly, where has your brain gone this morning?” Gram was being especially annoying today. So Truc decided the best thing to do was skedaddle before she lost her mind.

“Gram, it’s break time, right? You should go have lunch! I’ll meet you back home later!” Truc yelled over her shoulder as she raced away from her grandmother and towards the shop before her gramma could reel her back.

“There she goes getting her butt into trouble again.” Gramma Diana watched as Truc disappeared into the crowd, reminiscent of her youth. “Well, so long as she doesn’t get drawn and quartered…..POTS! POTS! WHO WANTS TO BUY MY POTS SO I CAN FINALLY EAT LUNCH!?” Diana continued yelling on her way home.

The man with the silky coats should be in here, right? Truc patted down her skirts and ran a hand through her hair before entering the shop. She readjusted the hairpin on her head and practiced her smile. A small wind chime hanging over the arch of the door resounded. The smell of incense wafted out, prickling her nose, and a nearby black cat mewed. A young couple passed her on their way out and she noticed the perfume the lady was wearing smelled like sandalwood and lotuses. In her hands, she held a package of red fabric probably for a wedding dress she was about to make. Truc envied how happy the couple looked together.

The fabrics that lined the walls and rolled up in wooden blocks stretched out before the filtering sunlight cast shadows of silvery red and greens onto the dusty floor. The shop was silent, not a single sound could be heard, but somewhere in the back was the sound of a voice, perhaps from the scholarly man she saw enter the shop. Heading towards the back, she noticed there was a screen door with a sign atop the entryway, “Feng Luu, Fortune-teller.” She decided to put her ear to the door for a quick listen. She normally didn’t believe in fortune-telling and there were too many fake ones in the streets these days, but listening in on one doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.

“I sense you will meet with great misfortune soon. In fact, I would say the omen is right behind you as we speak.” The gruff moldy voice said. “Are you here for your fortune to be told, child at the door?” The old man asked louder than usual and Truc jumped back.

“He knows I’m here?” She whispered.

“OF COURSE I DO! NOW COME IN!” The old man behind the door yelled out.

Timidly, she proceeded to open the door a peek. She looked inside to see an old hunchback, blind man sitting across from a young man in a glistening purple robe with silver highlights to match his rarer silver hair. This man must be nobility of some sorts, she thought. I must guard my tongue around him. This man smells of trouble. However, still mystified by the grey hair on such a young man’s face, Truc began to blurt out quite an unexpected question.

“Are you a fairy?” Naive Truc asked the stranger. And only after the question departed from her idiotic mouth did she gain hold of her senses again. Welp, prepare to be executed.

“What a funny question coming from such a lowly, ugly looking thing.” The man chuckled calmly behind a taut smile. Everything about him seethed the essence of only one word which came to Truc’s mind in that very moment, “bastard.” And though she did not say so out loud, she smiled back politely as he did, feeling the sparks already beginning to burn into her. This guy was bad news and though he grinned at her and offered her a seat beside him on the floor, she could feel the aura of “go away, peasant” radiating off of him. This was one reason why she hated spoiled nobles. “Can we please get back to what we were talking about? As I told you before, I wanted to know if my friend is going to be able to come back safely from the recent war.” There was a sense of urgency in his voice. Truc had no idea what she was doing here in the midst of all this so she sat awkwardly, staring at the scrolls along the wall. She could barely read them but she was sure one of them said, “Don’t stand near a tall tree during a lightning storm.”

“Calm down, fire pit who burns for no reason, we shall get to your dilemma soon, but first…” and the fortune-teller then turned his head to face Truc. His eyes were lifeless, bulging from their sockets, and she knew now that he was definitely blind, but still perhaps he sensed her there. “Your name, child?”

“Truc…” she said.

“No family titles?” The fortune-teller asked.

“My grandmother doesn’t believe in them because she has a bad experience with men and I don’t know who my father was so I can’t tell you.” She answered honestly. Having no family name to call her own, her worth was as good as a slave’s and she hated how the man next to her clicked his tongue as though he had just walked into a barn and spotted a dirty animal.

“Very well then. And you, child.” The fortune-teller then turned to look at the fairy-man.

He sighed haughtily. “My name is Je Ming of the Yi clan that has served under the king and previous kings for generations.” He boasted like a fat bird.

No wonder I didn’t like you, thought Truc, You really are just a spoiled young master who thinks he’s entitled to everything. Je Ming almost caught her glare, but Truc was faster and did a small gasp, remembering what gramma had told her about winning the favor of the opposite sex. Mustering a sweet honeycomb voice she praised the man next to her, “Oh my god, I didn’t know you were the Je Ming serving under his royal highness the king. I’ve heard so much about you and the villagers all love you! Pardon my rudeness earlier, sir.” And she bowed where she sat, smirking under her breath. When she got up again, she saw the snobby way he had his nose upturned under his fan that said that he had won the fight over status. Poured it on a bit too much, did I?

“Well, it can’t be helped. Some people are born as dumb as animals. You didn’t choose to look like a pig and have the brain of a mosquito. I quite pity you actually.” He unnecessarily commented. Shots fired off in Truc’s head. If I could hit you one time, oooh, it would be sooo good, you rude fu-

“Now then, children, there is a reason why the both of you have been brought to me today. It seems fate has something wonderful and tragic up her sleeves, no?” The blind man said deviously. “You were brought here today because your futures have just intertwined last night as dictated by the stars and birds. In fact, after today, I’m sure a lot of things will change for the both of you. I cannot tell you whether these changes will be good or bad or when they will come. All I can see is that they bring with them a force of great and terrible danger as well as hope and happiness.”

“Didn’t you just tell us that you couldn’t say if it was good or bad?” Je Ming looked skeptical and so did Truc. Why should she go and believe some blind man who says he can see?

“Ho, well, it might only be bad for one and good for the other. I cannot say. But after today, you will meet and clash again. Be warned, that this meeting has altered your futures completely. But it was not by chance. No, children, everything happens for a reason.” The blind man grinned and they saw the gaps in between his teeth and both shivered. His teeth were blackest black as though he had fed on coal.

“Now then, Truc, why don’t you give me your hand first.” Truc placed her hand, palm-up, in the wrinkled proffered hand and stared as he traced his index finger over her lines. He then chuckled softly and sighed.

“Ah, I see you’re being urged into marriage.” He said. “And you are only thirteen as well. You feel uncomfortable and not ready even though some of your friends have already married, have families, and have moved far away.”

“Yes! That’s right, my grandmother keeps on asking me to go meet men from the other villages.” Truc felt compelled to explain herself. “What can I say to get her to stop pushing me? I mean, I want to get married, but maybe in a few more years perhaps.”

“That’s so silly. You should just accept any offers now. I doubt anyone would want you when you’re an old wrinkly lady in a few more years” Je Ming condescendingly commented making the spikes on Truc’s back stand up. I doubt you’re popular with the ladies yourself, jackass. All the girls after you probably just want to get into your pants and get themselves an heir and title.

“Well, the man you are not looking for will come along soon. When he comes, watch him closely, he might be the one. Or perhaps it might be the one watching you. Tell your grandmother the great Feng Luu has read your fortune and your knight on a horse will come to sweep you off your feet soon. There is no reason to fret. And unlike the middle-age men your grandmother has gathered for you, the man for you shall be sprightly and full of energy and he will understand your childish heart. For him, you shall bear your offspring early. Be patient a little longer, child. Do good deeds until his arrival and you shall be rewarded. It is spring right now and the animals are running wild, but come next spring perhaps you shall be the one running wild.” And the fortune-teller chuckled and Truc sensed he meant something dirty but didn’t feel like prying further.

“Enough, how about me now?” Je Ming held out his thin arm and hand to the fortune-teller. Catching a glance at his smooth peach skin, Truc finally realized, this man probably had the luxury to bathe every day. She looked at her own dusty hands, the dirt-stained skin, and the chipped nails, and realized for the first time how different their lives were. For the first time, this small realization made her feel as though she had been put in her place.

“Hmm, my, it seems all is well now. But be warned, a storm is brewing in your future, little fire pit. It will take out your flame and you will be left with nothing. Although if you should welcome this storm, you in turn, will be greeted with better fortune and opportunities. That striking grey hair of yours has given you a hard experience until now, it has frightened people and you have been frightened by it yourself. It is a cursed thing that plagues your life with misfortune, but there is something great that it will offer you in the future. That attitude of yours is also a problem, but I doubt you’re going to fix it…As for the friend on the battlefield, I sense his aura coming home. You must tend to him when he gets back. There are great signs of danger in the palace awaiting his return. But once he gets back, everything shall change. The heavens have already dictated that much. Oh, and I also see a small snail has attached itself to your back. It is small now, but it shall grow into something too large for you to carry one day and thus, you must let it go, my child. Bid it farewell properly.”

“You can see all that from holding hands with someone?” Truc asked.

“Do not doubt my powers, child. I have traveled far in my younger days to be granted this power to share with the likes of you people. I even climbed the great Yiang Bin Mountains to be blessed by the bites of one hundred blackwing bats and three goats tried to eat my beard whilst I slept, but I didn’t let them! Three hundred leeches fed on my blood while I waded across the Yeng Xi river and horses have trampled upon my back for a whole day. Then I arrived at the temple of silent monks who I found weren’t so silent. They yelled at me for my vulgar clothing, saying I brought an odor so foul I must be cleansed before I could return to civilization. And they beat my head with a stick two hundred times causing me to go blind. That is the story of how the great Feng Luu was born and became a fortune-teller.” He laughed maniacally.

“Aren’t you just a crazy coot then?” Je Ming asked. “I doubt anybody would be sane after all that.”

“Do not doubt what I have said today, young ones. Be cautious and wary, your future changes the moment you leave this room.” He smiled that gap-tooth smile of his again.

When Truc and Je Ming stepped out of the stuffy room they looked at one another skeptically.

“You and I? Our fates intertwined and we’re bound to meet again? HA! That’s so unlikely I could spit on his head in disgust.” Je Ming looked at Truc like she was a sack of bad potatoes.

“Don’t do it. He’ll probably send a curse of two hundred leeches and goats to attack you in your sleep.” She said. “Then, if you’ll pardon me, sir. I must leave. I overstayed my welcome.” She bowed and headed for the exit not looking back.

Halfway down the crowded road of merchants and stalls selling goods, she started to remember that she hadn’t paid the fortune-teller yet. He didn’t ask for a price though. But he did do you a service. But he was probably a fake anyway. But he sure made you feel happy about your future even if it did involve that Je Ming fellow. Truc began to argue with her conscience. Sighing, she fished in her pocket for that week’s allowance. It was all she had on her. Turning around, she ran back to the shop where the same black cat mewed at her entrance. She ran to the back and knocked on the screen door, but no one answered.

“Umm…Hello?” She asked nervously.

“Can I help you?” A young girl walked by with a few rolls of fabric.

“Can I ask if Feng Luu the fortune-teller is in there or around here somewhere?” Truc asked.

“Who?”

“Feng Luu, the fortune-teller?”

“Miss, that’s a storage closet.” The young girl said as she opened the door and lo and behold there was nothing there but a few shelves for fabric samples. “Have a good day, miss.” The young girl closed the door, bowed, and left a confused Truc.

“I swore he was here though.” Truc looked up at the entryway, but there was no sign nailed up there as there had been before. It was the same shop and everything. That’s odd.

As she exited, still scratching her head, she almost felt as though the statue of the lion by the exit turned its head, yawned, and growled at her. Maybe she was just tired.

Perhaps he was a ghost, Truc laughed as she skipped home. Well, whatever, a free fortune-telling session doesn’t sound too bad. It’s not like it’s going to come true anyway.

Part 2

“So that’s what he told me…” Truc retold her tale to her grandmother that night over rice, steamed green beans, and some fermented tofu they had received from their neighbor. The goat that they kept in the yard went “meeeh” outside the door as he chewed on some grass.

“That’s impossible.” Her grandmother said.

“Why?”

“Because the great Feng Luu was a famous fortune teller when I was a girl your age. Only he wasn’t blind and he was rather good-looking. I heard he had traveled up to some mountain and had died up there many years ago. Mauled by a goat or something. You probably met a con man. I’m surprised he didn’t manage to take any of your money though.” Gramma said whilst chewing her beans.

“Maybe that noble fairy guy paid for our fortunes?” Truc suggested, though she didn’t like the sound of it.

“I highly doubt it.” Gramma Diana said. “Based on what you’ve told me, it sounded like he was ready to make you bow down and become his servant.”

“Oh, he was horrible, gram. You should have seen the look on his face whenever he made a snide remark. And they said nobles were supposed to be godly beautiful up close. UGH! He looked like an old fox.” Truc giggled out loud. “HAHA! Like an old man without the beard!”

“Silver hair on a young boy though…How odd. I wonder if he’s a vampire.” Gramma has a few screw loose.

“Oh, come on, gramma, you don’t believe in those legends, do you? Foreigners come up with the wildest ideas.” Truc laughed imagining Je Ming growing wings and sharp teeth by light of a full moon. “Pfft! He’d look like a crow!”

“Well, something or someone’s been stealing the neighboring town’s goats and I can’t put my finger on what.” Gramma shrugged.

“It’s probably just bandits. Besides, our goat’s so old, nobody would want her anyways.” Truc heard the “meeeeh” outside and felt assured. She stretched out on the straw-mat floor and yawned.

“Going to sleep already?” Gramma asked.

“It’s late, gram. Wake me up in the morning.” Truc pulled a blanket over her head and pretended to fall asleep. As she laid there upon the cool floor, she listened as her gramma continued finishing off her plate and cleared the table to the side. They lived in a small straw and wood hut on the outskirts of town and gramma was always telling Truc she was saving for a grand old house in the city one day. But Truc liked the peacefulness of the woods next door and the stone path leading into town that so many interesting travelers pass by in her backyard. She liked it here, away from the bustling city so she could think. Living in the center of all that noise, perhaps adjoined to someone else’s home with no space, a place where you could hear conversations through the thin walls, didn’t fare well with her.

“Truc, in the morning, take a gander at the list of men I have lined up for you. They paid to get their portraits painted too.” Gramma said, laying down on her blankets.

“But, Grammmm-” Truc groaned under the covers.

“Just do it. If you don’t like any of them, I’ll make you a whole new list. I got plenty of friends, young lady.”  Truc knew she could stall for a while, but time was slowly starting to run out.

“Night, gramma.”

“Good night, child.”

And so gramma blew out the candle and quiet settled over their home. The crickets sang that night as though they were in love and the owls snuggled close together in their hollows, welcoming in the future to come. And Truc had unsettling dreams of red dresses and festivals.

After a week passed and yet another passed by breezily, Truc had finally chosen a random man among the list. Feng Luu the fortune-teller was a fake after all, was what she thought. She was getting tired of strange men coming from faraway villages to visit her to convince her into captivity as their wives. Every morning was the same routine. A different man would come to the door and greet her very politely and immediately the interrogation would begin, but she would have nothing to say to him. Ladies of her generation were encouraged to keep their mouths shut and listen to their husbands ramblings. She could only voice her opinion in quiet, neutral ways and it made the anger in her stomach boil. Diana didn’t agree with it either, so she told Truc to pick a man who would listen to her in return. A young scholar came by one day and asked to talk to her, not of marriage, but of traveling and studying, and he told her he would teach her how to read, how to trade, how to do business, and be a respectable wife. He said he would be able to give her many opportunities if only she gave him her hand. This man didn’t force it upon her, he gave her a choice and for that, she told him yes. Overjoyed that there had finally been a match, Gramma Diana started making baby clothes that very night. Truc should have been happy. He was kind and not too demanding, seemed respectable and would keep his promises, but she felt empty. She had just decided to give her hand to a total stranger, not her heart which she only assumed she would keep to herself for the rest of her life.

He promised her that after he had gained a respectable place in the government, he would come back for her and whisk her away on a grand ox so once again, she was told to wait.

One morning, when the birds began their chatter outside the window, Truc got up before gramma Diana so she could go out for a brisk stroll. She slipped into her sandals and into a dusty robe and skirt that she was going to wash by the river in the evening. She placed her blanket over gramma Diana and made her way out, closing the doors as she left. Their goat, meeehh’d as she went by and she patted it on the head, making sure she had enough hay to eat for the day.

“How nice it must be to be a goat. You don’t have to worry about marriage and the like.” Truc sighed.

There was a small hill in the woods that she always climbed in the morning. There was a tree stump that she sat on there bathed in the light filtering through foliage. Mushrooms grew by the stump and so did strange-looking blue and yellow flowers. She knew the image of what awaited her every morning. There was no change. Each day was the same. She wanted to see that same perfect image of the woods again. Never-changing in its natural way.

“WARF! WARF!” A sound broke the silence.

“Huh?” Truc, no longer staring at her feet, looked up, and saw a mutt sitting on her stump. He was a black dog, medium in size, wagging his tail happily upon finally meeting her. “What’s a dog doing here?” Truc surveyed her surroundings for the owner, but there was nary another sound or presence in the forest. “Is anyone there?! Is this your dog?!” The creature seemed fatigued, malnourished even, as it panted. It crawled down from its place and practically had to drag its body to her feet where it collapsed in front of her. She looked at it for a moment, the flags in her head going up again. Someone probably left him here to die, the bastards. Irresponsible people. Getting a dog and abandoning him in the woods like he’s not your problem. What should I do? Take him back? But it’s not like we can look after him…If I pick him up, he’s gonna get the wrong idea. He’s gonna think I want to keep him. And gramma’s gonna give me hell for bringing home something I can’t raise. Should I move him? Should I bring back some food for him? He looks really sick. Uh, but, but, but…

“No.” Gramma turned the other way as she began to weave a basket. She was a basket-weaver on the weekends.

“But, grammmmm, I already brought him back here. I couldn’t very well let him die in the forest. It’ll stink.” Truc tried reasoning in a very annoying, pleading voice, of course, it’ll never work.

“You brought him back here, now get rid of him. We don’t have room or food for a dog.” Gramma looked over her shoulder. “Are you listening to me, young lady? What if he’s diseased or something?”

“He doesn’t look that bad.” Truc brought over a dish filled with water and helped the mutt shift himself so he could lap it up. When she saw he was too weak to do so, she cupped the water in her hands and dripped it into his mouth. He whimpered, but wagged his tail in response. He could barely stand.

“Truc, don’t you dare.” Gramma Diana, however, was too late. Truc took out the smoked meat they were saving for winter and shredded off a generous chunk, throwing it onto the fire pit, and waited for it to warm up and soften before chewing it up so it was easier for the dog to swallow. Again, he wagged his tail, so carefree. After eating from her hands which he licked clean, he barked in gratitude and cuddled into her lap.

“Too late, gram.” Truc said as she patted his muddled fur. “He needs a bath too.” She ran inside to find the towels. “I’m going to take him to the river to wash him up and then I’ll see if I can sell him to some nice person in town.” Truc smiled. “Smart plan, right?”

Sighing, Diana could only mutter, “Oh, what have I raised…I asked for sensible children from the heavens and they sent me an idiotic saint. Going around and saving stray dogs willy-nilly.” But what was done was done and Diana could only grumble. “Fetch a price high enough to replace the meat he ate, alright?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll probably get even more!” Truc yelled over her shoulder as she left.

They waded in the river and she tried to take out all the twigs and leaves tangled in his dusty fur. After a long half hour of playing in the river moreso than cleaning, she brought him to the pebbled shores and dried off his fur. He was much more energetic and he seemed happy to be patted down by towels. He was quite obedient.

“Who is your owner, huh?” She cupped his furry cheeks in her hands and asked into his eyes. “Why did they abandon a sweet thing like you here? Or maybe they were mean and you ran away?” He whimpered because he couldn’t understand. He wagged his wet tail and they both got wet again. “Hmm, what should I call you in the meantime? How about Chu Ju? It means daisy but I think it fits you. Who cares if you’re a boy. Real boys are mean anyway.” Truc laughed when he licked her hands. “C’mon, Chu Ju!” She stood up and ran up a nearby hill. Seeming to understand she was calling for him, he climbed up after her.

When they walked into town, she had tied a loose rope about his neck to keep him from running off. There were some restaurants giving her dirty looks, hoping she wouldn’t bring the dog in with her. She just stuck her nose up at them and continued walking. The guests you serve are even less educated than this dog. When she spotted a nicely dressed man and woman walking through the streets with a child, she stopped to ask the man if they were interested in taking care of a dog. They gave her a horrible look and left without answering. She asked several more people after that and were given the same if not worse type of response. She couldn’t ask someone of her status because they were barely scraping by themselves. He’d go hungry if she left him with a poor family. As she sat down on a crate outside of a rundown restaurant to think of her options, a nice looking man approached her.

 “Hey, are you looking for a new home for this little guy?” He asked as he crouched down to pet Chu Ju who licked his hands timidly. “My employer’s been looking for a dog just like this. It’s just his style.”

“Really? He can give him a good home? No more worrying if he’ll starve?” Truc asked.

“Yep! I can pay you this much.” He opened up a bag of coins and allowed her to peek inside. Someone with this much money is bound to take good care of Chu Ju. Truc sighed in relief. “Here you go.” He placed the pouch in her hands and took the rope from her hands. Something still bothered her though.

“Um, you’ll make sure he’s pampered, right?” Truc asked, still worried. “He’ll get belly rubs and scratches behind his ears and under his chin, right?”

“Sure, kid. We’ll give him the best treatment possible.” The man walked away without looking at her again, practically dragging Chu Ju who seemed reluctant to go with him. Chu Ju whimpered as Truc stood in the alley waving at him. It didn’t feel right to her. It was like selling off her best friend even though they had just met. She looked at the bag of money in her hands, it felt so heavy. And then there were the rope marks burned into her other wrist from walking around with him all day. He was a good dog. Turn away, turn away right now, her mind told her, but her legs had other plans.

She sighed as she rounded the corner. She ended up tailing the man and Chu Ju who keeps looking over his furry shoulder for her. I’m just making sure he’s being brought to a nice place.

But what she saw next left her legs feeling weak and the breath caught in her throat in horror.

Part 3

“What the hell…” The man had went to the back of an alley where there was a backyard full of bloody and splintered wooden cages. The cages were cramped, filled to the brim with animals. There were several bloody tables draped with fur and dirty knives cast aside after the cutting. Dogs and cats whined and whimpered from their cages, too weak to put up a fight any longer. All of their eyes showed pain, horror, and lack of so much love that she felt like screaming and crying on the spot. A kitten from somewhere mewed for its lost mother who would never come back. She wanted to puke so bad but she kept her eyes on Chu Ju who was locked away in a cage in the corner. “He tricked me…THE BASTARD!” She gripped the pouch of money in her pocket even tighter. She wasn’t scared, because fear is always followed by anger in some form. She was going to get her dog back. No two ways about it.

She returned to the front of the restaurant where patrons were raving and shuffling in droves to get inside for a taste. They didn’t know what was actually on the menu. The whole menu was a lie and that went against business policies especially for one in the main trade city. Small businesses have leeway, but a grand buffet like this is bound to have some rules, and they just went and broke a hundred of them. In her anger and furious emotional drive, she dove into the restaurant getting lost in the crowd. She stuck out like a sore thumb in her clothing, but she didn’t give a damn. She had to find the chef and throw the money in his face along with some insults, otherwise the flame in her eyes wouldn’t die down.

“Miss, may I help you?” A waiter came by.

“Where’s the kitchen?” She asked.

“It’s in the back. But guests aren’t allo-“

Before he could finish she had pushed him to the side, making him fall along with the serving tray of food and raced to the back. Some onlookers noticed the appearance of a commoner in their midst and had already started whispering at their tables. A table on the second floor particularly was at full attention.

“Well, who let the riff-raff in, I wonder? Ugh, they’re everywhere I look now. Even the smell of one is horrible.” Je Ming said as he drank his hot tea.

“That’s quite enough, Je Ming. Leave them alone.” His friend, sitting opposite him in the shadows, also drank some tea. “I didn’t come here to talk about such things.”

“As I was saying, I’m glad you’re back safely, but to make you do this impossible task right after getting home…The man must be an idiot.” Je Ming smirked. “Not to mention you have a dilemma of your very own. Have they found him yet?”

“Not yet. My men are about as useful as bamboo trees in a forest. They end up finding each other rather than the target.” He was about to take another sip of tea until he heard some horrible yelling in the back. He looked down at the commotion below. Servers and diners were gathering to listen in and the restaurant had grown oddly quiet.

“HOW DARE YOU PAY ME SO THAT YOU COULD KILL MY DOG AND SERVE HIM UPON A PLATTER TO THESE BIGWIGS!!” Truc was down below screaming her head off at the chef and staff in the kitchen. The man who had paid her earlier tried to escort her out, but she wouldn’t budge. She took the coin pouch from her pocket and thew it HARD at his head, knocking him out with a nosebleed. “HERE”S YOUR DIRTY MONEY BACK, NOW LET ME TAKE MY DOG AND I’LL LEAVE!” The staff who were trying to stop her from running to the back were stunned helpless as she ran outside to find a much excited Chu Ju wagging his tail at her return. “There you are. Good boy.” She opened the cage and he raced into her arms, she practically cried from smelling the dried blood on his fur. “We’re going home to gram!” She took his rope and was about to lead him away when she finally noticed the angry chef standing behind her.

“You! Do you know what you’ve done, you idiotic peasant?! Ruined my business! You’ve seen too much!” He grabbed her roughly by the wrist leading her to the bloody chopping table. Yelling, as he raised a butcher’s knife over his head to cut her hand off. Truc, in that one moment, realized a lot of things. Sure, she was stupid, but did she regret what she did? Nah, it was pretty fun getting the rich all riled up. Chu Ju was barking and growling beside her, looking like he was about to maul the chef and he would have if not for the staff pulling on his rope. All this for a dog. But I guess I gained a friend through all this. Life ain’t so bad. It’s better than getting married, that’s for sure. Bark louder, boy, so everyone’ll know what this crummy business is all about.

She squinted her eyes closed, readying herself for the pain. All women must go bravely, is what gram always said. There’s no point in being scared. Goodness and kindness will return to you in due time. The wind passed, the knife must be making its way to her wrist right now. Time is merely slowing down.

“HOLD IT!” A loud boisterous voice yelled from inside the kitchen. Everyone appeared to be gasping for some reason as a pair of men made their entrance.

“MAKE WAY, COMMONERS! UGH, YOU ALL SMELL DISGUSTING!” A higher pitch voice screamed.

Two figures made their way out to the yard and Truc saw that silver hair sparkling in the moonlight again. It couldn’t be. Could it?

“What are you doing?” The black-haired man standing in front of the fairy-haired man walked up to the chef and glared down at him. He wasn’t as burly as the chef, but his voice was menacing and threatened instantaneous death. He had a sword with him which meant he was a soldier of some kind. Either way, anyone with a sword spelled trouble. “Let go of her hand and explain this to me.” He motioned to the cages and the poor animals now riled from all the commotion. “Do you mean to tell me you sell your patrons animals off the streets and not the farm?! That you’re nothing more than a scammer?!”

“Who are you?!” The chef, still gripping onto Truc, defiantly asked. “This is MY business, I run it the way I want to.”

“Well, I hope you’re not planning to serve me human meat next.” The man looked at the chef and the bloody table in disgust.

“Watch your tongue, peasant! Do you know who this is!? This is our country’s savior, the Great General Jian Tan! He recently came back victorious from the war and what do you reward him with!? This sorry sight after he saved your lives! And a meal not even fit for a pig!” Je Ming announced dramatically. “Now do as he says or we’ll serve YOUR HEAD on a platter!” Je Ming’s threat was not as convincing, but one knew he meant every word of it. At this, the chef immediately registered their fine clothes in the moonlight and released Truc. He began to scream in apologetic regret, begging for his life shamelessly in front of them, and dropping to the ground on his knees.

Truc didn’t care about the chef, she raced toward a worried Chu Ju who in turn managed to tug out of his rope and lick her bloodied hands, whimpering his sentiments. The blade had only grazed her skin. But it didn’t matter, she was never so glad in all her life. She hugged him and he barked so very happily. The tears had started to drip down to his fur.

“Are you alright?” A kind, quiet voice asked her from behind. She turned around to see the great general staring back. She was kneeling and he was crouching and it didn’t really make for a pretty picture.

“I’m alright. It’s just a scratch!” She said, feeling rather dizzy. She wiped her brow, realized she was still bleeding, and then laughed at the blood that wouldn’t stop. By now her heart had caught up to her so she felt like crying of fear, relief, and joy all at once. The pain was also returning to her senses. “I’m sorry. I must be such a sorry sight to look at. Don’t mind me, General.” She turned away in shame at her appearance in front of the man who saved the country.

“That’s not it.” He said quietly.

“What?” She looked at him again to see him smiling just a bit, the corners of his lips tugging up.

“I wanted to say thank you and….” His voice became a whisper until whatever else he said after that Truc couldn’t hear at all. The dizziness wasn’t stopping, her head was killing her, the blurriness came in, and then the world was bathed in black.

Ah, what an uncool way to faint, she thought as she lost consciousness. But in the meager seconds of fainting and waking, she felt something warm envelop her and then she was floating, maybe even flying as her body drifted away elsewhere. For the first time in a long while she had a very sweet dream whilst unconscious. A dream about a man who smiled honestly at her and carried her away from the sad fate waiting for her at home.

Part 4

“Warf! Warf!” A dog from close by barked.

That must be Chu Ju. Thank goodness, he’s alright. Truc felt something warm and wet lap at her hand as she slowly opened her eyes. There was a cool towel draped across her forehead. She tried to wriggle her hand, but the sudden pain shot through her nerves and paralyzed her again. Guess the cut was deeper than I thought. Man, how am I going to explain this to gram.

“Warf! Warf!” Chu Ju ran around in a circle at the foot of the bed in excitement and Truc smiled. He noticed her getting up and placed his front paws on the bed, panting. When her vision cleared a bit, she noticed that this wasn’t home. She was in an ornately decorated room with marble flooring and circular wooden windows shining with varnish. There were jade end tables with a wash basin and jug by her bedside. A much larger wooden table sat in the middle of the room with a porcelain vase of carnations, a tea kettle, and a plate of snacks. She noticed the excessive canopy above her head and the mosquito netting. She was also changed into a nice soft yellow silk robe, the likes of which she thought she would never wear in her lifetime. The decor, architecture, and accommodations could only mean she was in a ritzy place. How in the world did she get here though?

“Where is this place?” She tried to sit up, but the heavy blankets and the twenty pillows on the wide bed obstructed her from getting up. Ugh, is this how the rich people sleep? It’s so uncomfortable. She tried to call for someone but her throat was much too parched. She gave up when she noticed how eerily silent it was outside. Steadying herself, she peeled back blanket after blanket and stepped down onto the cold floor. Her sandals were nowhere in sight. She made her way to the table and poured herself a cup of tea which she downed so fast she almost choked. The taste was sweet and yet bitter. She popped a few rice treats into her mouth and observed the surroundings.

“Warf! Warf!” Chu Ju had brought over a red ball and dropped it by her feet.

“Do you know where we are, boy?” Truc picked up the ball and threw it into the next empty room separated by an entryway. Chu Ju raced after it and raced back with a different toy- a soft piece of rope. He wanted to play tug of war.

Truc was about to pour herself another cup of tea when voices started chattering outside her door. The clatter of the doors caught her attention as a pair of beautifully dressed girls walked in with serving trays of food and saw her struggling to pour herself tea with her bandaged arm. They immediately screamed at her.

“MISS! PLEASE SIT DOWN! YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE OUT OF BED YET!” The taller one screamed like a strict matron.

“What? No, it’s fine.” She objected but was lead back to the bed and made to sit down. To be honest, she was pushed down like a sack of flour. “Ooph!”

“The doctor said you needed your rest.” The shorter one said calmly as she placed the trays down on the table. “He said your wrist needed a week at most to heal and the fever you contracted three nights ago just recently calmed down. We’ve brought you wonderful nourishment so that you may regain your health. The medicine is mixed in with the tea for drinking at your comfort.” She bowed as she brought a bowl of porridge over to the tall one who took it.

“Wait. I was asleep for three days?” Truc asked.

“Yes, miss.” The tall one took a spoonful and blew on the hot porridge. She brought the spoon to Truc’s mouth who stared at it in disbelief. Did I die and go to heaven already? Why are they serving me? “And who are you supposed to be?” She took a bite of the porridge anyway.

“Ah, pardon the late introductions, miss. My name is Tiana and this is Natalie. We are the two head maids in charge of your recovery. We also oversee to the kitchen, cleaning, health, and army.” The tall one introduced and they bowed again.

“Wait, army?”

“Ah, what I meant is that we are in charge of training the servant girls of the palace in case the palace should be attacked while the men are away. It is our duty to protect the palace to the last person.” She said humbly.

“…” Truc thought she heard something absolutely extraordinary so she slapped herself a few times to wake up. “Did you say palace?” She finally asked. No way, right?

“Yes, miss. You are a guest in one of the living quarters of the outer palace owned by the Prince’s most trusted. The King’s palace is an inner palace beyond the walls and is used exclusively by him and his party of overseers and ministers. There are about ten buildings surrounding the main King’s palace. You are currently resting in the one owned by the Great General Jian Tan.” Natalie explained. “But since all structures are part of the palace we generally call it the palace as a whole. The name of this specific building, however, is called the Niao. It means bird.”

“But what am I doing here?” Truc asked. She was ready to leave; just listening to these girls gave her a headache. A commoner like her wasn’t supposed to be here, in these clothes, being served and getting called, “miss.” The over-privileged lived scary lives and she didn’t want any part of it.

“You saved the master’s pet dog from being turned into dog chow, that’s why you’re here, honey! And I heard you caused such a commotion at that shitty restaurant that they were forced to close almost immediately. The master brought you back that night, waking up the entire house, and got us to clean you up in new robes and everything. I’ve never seen him so panicked. I’m not surprised though. Niao here has been missing since he left for the war and the people around here had given up hope of ever finding him again.” Tiana laughed, breaking character all of sudden and surprising Truc with her sunny personality. It was quite refreshing.

“So his real name’s Niao.” Truc marveled. Even though he responded to Chu Ju, huh?

“You can tell how much the general loves this little guy since he named his home after him.” Tiana stooped to pet Niao as he passed by to leap onto the bed.

“Tiana, retain yourself.” Natalie glared at her friend. “You are in the presence of an honored guest.” She was very stone-faced and strict it seems. Truc could already imagine what she’d be like with a whip.

“No, it’s quite alright.” Truc raised her hands in protest. “I’m even lower on the class tier than you are. Treat me however you feel comfortable. I’ll be leaving as soon as I can anyway.”

“Well, suite yourself, sweet-cheeks. Just watch yourself around the young master and his silver-haired foxy friend.” Tiana warned.

“You mean Je Ming?” Truc asked.

“You met the young master Je Ming as well it seems.” Natalie seemed ticked off by the mention of his name, clicking her tongue. Truc felt like they would become real good friends from that reaction alone. She watched as Natalie took the empty porridge bowl which she had just finished gobbling down and went back to the table to fill the bowl with what looked like a beef broth. The smell was intoxicating.

“Hey Nat, pour me a bowl too, would you?” Tiana sat beside Truc and Niao on the bed as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

“And why should I? You’re not sick.” It seems that constant banter always broke out between these two.

“I gotta check it for poison or something.” Tiana said. “Maybe someone put a fly in it.”

“Ha! You were the one who made it this morning. If there’s anything in there, you’ll be hanged yourself.” Natalie objected but poured her a bowl anyway.

“Where is the great general, by the way?” Truc asked as she sipped at her broth, remembering the kind face from that night.

“He should be at a meeting with the fox, the dumb prince, and the prince’s sneaky adviser this morning. The four of them get along, oddly enough.” Natalie sat down on a wooden chair by the window, keeping watch. She suddenly remembered she was in the presence of a stranger and covered her mouth, “Excuse me.” She seemed apologetic but-

“HAHAHAHAHAHA!” She turned to see Truc and Tiana laughing their heads off at her break in character. She was very cynical, you see.

“There’s the Natalie I know.” Tiana wiped away a tear forming in the corner of her eyes. “I knew you couldn’t keep up the act.”

“I tried.” Natalie shrugged. “Oh, and look who’s the wind bringing in. Tiana, clean up this mess. I’ll go alert the young maids to wait at the front hall. The general is back and he brought the disagreeable fairy with him.” Natalie started to tuck Truc back into bed. “Hang tight, he’s gonna come by for a visit.” Natalie said. “Watch your tongue around Je Ming though he’s bound to say something nasty again.”

Tiana cleared the table, rearranged the flowers, and dusted the floors as Natalie made her way out.

“You guys must always be on your feet like this, huh?” asked Truc.

“It’s tiring, but we’re treated very nicely by our master. Otherwise, Natalie and I would’ve had to serve in a brothel for the rest of our days.” Tiana said sadly, reminiscing about the past. “You know the both of us have been together for as long as I can remember. Orphans can only go so far in life. We were both sold to the same slave traders and when things seemed as though it was the end for us, the general stepped in and saved us even though he was barely a boy himself. So you don’t have to think of us on different tiers at all. The only difference is that we have jobs and you don’t. There’s no such thing as class to me and to Nat.”

“Alright.” Truc felt reassured then that they could be friends. She didn’t have many friends. “Thank you, Tiana. And tell Natalie I said thank you too.”

Just as she said that, the young masters’ shadows could be seen from the door. Tiana had wiped the table clean and stood to the side ready to bow upon their entry.

“Are you awake, young lady?” The gentle voice asked from the other side of the paper-screen. Truc gripped the blanket, somehow more nervous than she had planned.

“I’m awake, general. Please enter.” Truc said with a squeaky voice caught in her throat. Jian walked in followed by Je MIng who seemed skeptical as ever. Tiana bowed upon their presence and excused herself.

“Well then, if you’ll allow me to go, miss, sirs.” She kept her head down as she left, closing the door behind her.

“How are you feeling?” Jian asked as he dragged a wooden chair to sit by the bed.

“Much better thanks to your and everyone else’s care, sir. Really, thank you so much.” She said quietly, keeping her head down as well. In fact, she hadn’t taken the opportunity to look at him at all.

“Would you please raise your head?” He asked. Slowly, she did and for the first time, their eyes could meet in clarity. It was strange, making eye contact with a nobleman and one who was called a hero of the country. There was certainly tension and fear on Truc’s part, but his dark eyes spoke for him. He was kind, respectable, and he was someone you could trust your life with. Truc understood now why so many villagers talked so highly of him. Her eyes traced his face from his raven eyes to his pale eyelids, the thin yet defined eyebrows, the frown lines forming on his forehead, his temple, his pointish ears, the nicely proportioned nose, to his light cherry lips. Everything made her heart in its cage tremble.

“I heard you carried me here to your home, sir. I appreciate your care very much, but I fear I must leave soon. I mustn’t worry my grandmother so much.” Is the good-girl act too much?

“You saved my Niao, right?” He ignored what she just said.

“Uhm, not so much as he saved me, sir.”

“Stop calling me that.” He suddenly intercepted.

“What?” Truc looked up in confusion. Is he pouting?

“I have a name. Try saying it. It’s Jian. Not sir, not general, not master, not great general, or even hero.” He smiled an unreadable smile. “Call me by my name.”

“Uhm…I don’t think I should.” Truc was starting to feel uncomfortable.

“Are you disobeying me right now?” Jian asked, still smiling. Dang son, how demanding are you gonna be? Now that Truc had her senses back, her hate radar for rich people is beginning to beep again.

“Ji…an” She mumbled.

He chuckled a bit and patted her head, the large hand was warm and gentle on her hair. “Good job.”

“Jian, you’re being ridiculous. Hey, commoner, don’t let this get to your head. He treats all small creatures like pets.” Je Ming huffed. But Truc knew better to pay him any mind.

“Warf! Warf!” Niao ran over and pounced on Jian, happy to see him too.

“Hello there! And how you’ve been?” Truc could tell he absolutely adored this dog.

“Warf!” Niao then jumped onto Truc’s bed and slobbered all over her and she laughed as he sniffed her hair.

“It’s such a surprise.” Jian said.

“What is?” Truc asked.

“It’s the first time he’s ever shown signs of liking someone this much.” Jian smiled brightly and Truc felt something weird bubbling up in her stomach. Must be the porridge, she thought. Or maybe I need to go to the toilet after three days of nothing but sleep. “I’m glad you made another friend, boy.” And Jian ruffled his fur.

“Look Jian, I need to have a word with you.” Je Ming placed a hand on Jian’s shoulder and Niao immediately barked at him. It seems Niao didn’t like Je Ming.

“Let’s go to the study room.” Jian lead Je Ming out, but came back a few seconds later.

“When you get a little better, try taking a walk in the garden. It’ll get your spirits back up in no time. And feel free to call the maids if you need anything.” He smiled and raced out again.

“But what about my gramma-” Too late, he’s gone. Can’t I just leave whenever I want? Ugh, it’s so suffocating here. Truc laid down and stared at the ceiling. “I feel ready to leave already though. Staying here means trouble. Was this what the great Feng Luu predicted? Ughhh, it can’t be. Something of this grand scale is too unbelievable. It definitely won’t last.”

“Warf!” Niao barked.

“Your master spoils you like rotten, doesn’t he? I bet the girl who gets to marry him will be real lucky to have such a kind man. But that girl won’t be me. You know why asides from the obvious?” Truc looked sadly at Niao who whimpered. “Because the lives of a commoner fits into the palms of the rich like a delicate toy. We love to stay there in that place thinking we’re safe, but we could break at any moment.”

Part 5

“What exactly is going on in that head of yours?” Je Ming asked Jian when they were alone.

“Strategic plans, Niao, the prince, and the usual miscellaneous.” Jian answered. He sat down at the writing desk and started writing a letter. He dipped the brush in ink and made small, brisk strokes across the paper.

“Who is that for?” Je Ming asked.

“Her grandmother. We have to alert the poor lady of her granddaughter’s conditions.” Jian says honestly. “I’ll send it along with a messenger who can read it to her.”

“What, are you her doctor now? Just send the girl home already. This place stinks of common-folk so much I’m liable to have headaches.” Je Ming shook his head. “Oh, I feel one coming on right now!”

“I can’t understand why you can’t put your hatred for commoners behind you.” Jian, unlike Je Ming loved the common-folk.

“Because they still stone and insult me whenever they see my hair.” Je Ming says darkly. “You know why I hate their guts. They’re nothing but pawns to the kingdom. Their roles in a kingdom is to play the role of the subject, never to be acknowledged for something greater, and they die nameless. That’s fine by me.” The hatred in Je Ming’s heart runs deep and what could be called love was the affection and admiration he held for Jian. Jian, who to him was the most oblivious person on the planet and needed constant attention.

“She’d make a good candidate, don’t you think?” Jian asked as he folded the letter and sealed it in an envelope.

“You’re joking, right?” Je Ming asked. He took one look at Jian’s face and knew. “You’re not joking. THAT?! YOU’RE CONSIDERING THAT GIRL?!” Je Ming felt insulted.

“Niao likes her.” Jian said blissfully. “He rarely likes anyone I bring home.”

“That dog is not your mother! Don’t let it decide for you which girls you should marry or not!” Je Ming knew that the wise general was at times, not so wise.

“But you have to admit no ordinary woman would burst into the restaurant and save a stray dog like she did.” Jian laughed recalling the night.

“No, cause they’re not stupid. Please Jian, as your friend, I’m advising you to reconsider and pick a sensible noble girl. All commoners act nice but they’re real evil on the inside.” It appears Je Ming shared the opposite viewpoint of Truc who saw the nobles as evil.

“Je Ming, she almost got her hand chopped off.”

“That doesn’t mean you owe her your life! It was her decision.”

“Je Ming, I think you should go and cool your head. Think about your beliefs and what she did to break them. The only reason you’re so upset is because of your pride. Not everyone is evil in this land. If they were, I wouldn’t risk my life constantly on the battlefield to protect them.”

And with that Jian left the room where a frustrated Je Ming threw a few scrolls at the closed door upon his exit.

“I’m not wrong. That girl is nothing but trouble.” Je Ming ended up crying on the floor that day. He acted mean, but his heart was actually very fragile, you know. And what he harbored in his heart was simply something that would never be allowed in his lifetime.

A week later of doing nothing but sitting in her room and talking to Tiana and Natalie who stopped by for a visit twice a day, Truc was beginning to wonder when she would be allowed for release. She was worried about gramma too.

“Feeling better, hon?” Tiana asked as she checked Truc’s wrist. “Looks like it’s going to leave a scar. I hope the man you marry won’t mind.”

“He won’t. We common folk don’t worry much about beauty. We look at someone and think, ‘well, it’s either that person or their uncle.'” Truc didn’t feel like bringing it up the next topic but she knew she had to. “Um, do you guys think I could leave now? Has Jian said anything?” Jian had been trying to visit her every night for the past week. He would sit beside her bed and tell her stories about war and childhood and ask for stories in return. They even talked about their opinion on the prince openly, unafraid. They talked of fears and dreams and all sorts of things that made her heart pound like it never could before. They got along rather well and she found herself slowly falling for his kind, gentlemanly charm. Which was a really bad sign since she told herself that she couldn’t grow attached. The world of the palace was not a place for her to barge into. But never once could she tell him she wanted to leave, because deep down some part of her didn’t want to. She knew she would get hurt, but some part of her didn’t mind. It was so bizarre.

“Why don’t you go and take Niao on a walk, Truc? I’m sure you need some fresh air.” Natalie said vaguely as she rolled up the sheets for washing. “Get outside and explore what the rich folk take pleasure in. Me and Tiana will deal with the master.”

Natalie had been given instructions to keep Truc around as long as possible by Jian who practically had to plead for his life in front of her two nights ago.

“I know she’s growing restless these days. If she asks to leave, don’t tell her anything directly. Just suggest a walk or something.” Jian paced about the kitchen as Natalie sat listening, sipping on her tea, amused.

“You’re losing your head, young master. I never thought the day would come when a girl would catch your attention.” Natalie was glad for the entertainment. Her sadistic nature tended to show up during the night. “

“Anyway, if she asks to leave, you have to keep her here at all cost. Tie her up or something,” Jian was obviously freaking out to the point of insanity. “I’ll ask her if I could court her properly soon. And I’ll meet her grandmother and we can get the prince’s approval.” He took deep breaths, biting his nails.

“And if she wants to leave no matter what?” Natalie asks. “You can’t keep a bird caged if it wants to fly, you know.”

“What should I do then? I mean, since Niao liked her so much I thought I could like her too, but I didn’t expect to like her this much. She’s actually interested in what I have to say. She doesn’t just smile and nod at my accomplishments and she argues back as though we’ve known each other for years in the war. Her laughter is unhinged and her eyes sparkle as though the snow had just newly fallen.”

“Okay, stop before you make any more poems.” Natalie ordered.

“What?”

“Ahem, well, it seems the little boy has grown up now, I see.” Natalie chuckled. “So you’ve found a girl who sparks your interest. But I don’t have all the powers in my hands, you know. What her decisions are in the future will depend on how you treat her and express your feelings to her. You have to make yourself so irresistible to the point that she’ll never want to leave your side again. That is how you keep hold of a common girl who is afraid to overstep her boundaries. You make her want to not walk, but run over to the side she fears all for you. That is how you should love.”

“You speak as though you have experience in that area, Natalie.”

“Oh, do I now?” Natalie had a wistful expression as she finished the tea and the talk ended.

Part 6

“Warf! Warf!” Niao brought back a stick from the underbrush.

“Go fetch it, boy!” Truc threw it as far as she could and Niao ran after it again. They had been playing fetch for an hour outside and Truc was beginning to grow tired. The sun was out and the grass was whistling. The air felt nice and the lush greenery here made her forget the horrible dark alleyways and the scum she had to fight to keep Niao safe. It felt like only yesterday. Guess I’ll take a nap….

When Niao hadn’t returned for a while, Truc grew worried. “Don’t tell me he got lost again.” She got up and looked under bushes and around trees, but he was nowhere to be found. She walked across bridges and ponds and through strange passageways, but Niao was nowhere in sight. She listened for his distinctive bark, but nary a sound came. She passed by maids and servants and asked if they’ve seen a dog, but none could help her.

“You should try looking around the second palace, miss. He tends to go there to find general Jian.” One of the servants suggested.

“Thank you.” She bowed, surprising the servant, and started to head to the second palace, the Horse palace.

“Hum di da di da DOOM! HAHAHAHAHA! Aah, tis another day for the great me to awaken! Are you happy to see me, world?!” A man wearing robes of golden threads threw open the windows of his room and yelled out. All the servants on the ground below bowed to him and he laughed some more. “Ah, look at those ants as they bow. What a sight to behold.”

“Your highness, I really do not think you should conduct yourself in such a manner.”Kang Wu, his humble servant and adviser, advised from the corner.

“Oh hush, my wise adviser. The ants only bow because the great me is so…so…uh, what’s the word?”

“Spontaneous?”

“YES! SPONGETAINTOUCHE!” He laughed some more. “HAHAHAHAHA! As expected of my scholarly friend.”

“You happened to study under the same tutor with me, your highness.”

“Yes, and what drivel he taught, huh? What kind of word is SPONBOBANEOUS anyway? HAHAHAHAHA!” He headed into the grand bathroom for a bath, leaving Kang Wu to sigh at his stupidity. “Oh yes, Kang Wu, let’s go for a walk later. My legs are aching to bless the gardens with their steps.” He laughed in the bathroom and Kang Wu felt like apologizing to the whole world for this existence.

“Yes, your highness, whatever you wish.” was what he could only reply as he went to get the entourage prepared for the walk.

 “Oh, look at all these pretty rose petals; they smell nice. Only flowers from my gardens could smell this nice. Maids, bring me my wooden ducky!” The prince instructed the waiting bath maids to bring him his bath toy as one of them scrubbed his back with a towel. another began to scrub his arms as he tried to hold the duck afloat in the water, but being made much too heavy it sunk constantly. He had to dive to get it and when he didn’t come up again, the servants started to fret.

“Hey, is his highness alright?” One of the servants ask.

“How long can he hold his breath underwater?”

“He was boasting the other day that he could swim better than any fish.”

“I think that fish just drowned.”

“HAHAHAHA! I found it!” Surprising the heck out of everyone, he resurfaced victorious with the wooden duck in his hands. “Servants, applaud your master for I have returned from my undersea mission of doom!” So they weakly clapped at his antics.

After fooling about in the tub, the prince was dried, dressed, and his servants combed his hair to perfection. He toiled about in front of the mirror, inspecting himself as most narcissists wont to do and nodded his head in bliss. “Ah, no one in this kingdom could hold a light to my flame, can they? Hahahahaha!” He stared at himself, rather enraptured by his own reflection. “My, aren’t you pretty looking this fine morning.” He kissed his own reflection.

“Your highness, your entourage is ready.” Kang Wu said from outside the bedroom chambers.

“Ah, Kang Wu, come in and gaze upon my manliness bursting forth within this splendid robe.”

“I’m afraid I would rather not, your majesty. I just had breakfast and I’m afraid it might come back out if I see your manliness.” He objected dryly.

“Is my manliness that powerful?” The prince, whose name you should know by now, is An Liu was a rather eccentric fellow. He behaved quite well on the throne and in court but in the privacy of his own home, he was rather mischievous and despicably unpredictable.

 “No, sire. I just have a weak stomach due to your constitution.” Kang Wu said sarcastically. But it went right into An Liu’s ear and out the other.

“Well, let’s go on that walk!” Bursting forth from the grand doorway, the prince stepped out graceful as a swan and as composed in mind as a woodpecker. “Let us go to the gardens where my azeleas await us.” He made a mad dash for the exit while Kang Wu treaded behind murmuring under his breath.

“We don’t have azeleas.” He had tried to say, but the Prince was already out of earshot.

On that fateful afternoon, if only the Prince hadn’t wanted a walk and perhaps if only Niao hadn’t gone missing, perhaps there would have been far less to worry about. But fate works in so many mysterious ways to tie people together. For you see, as the Prince was taking his leisure stroll about the palace grounds he had chanced upon an unfamiliar face, yes, that face was of a pure girl by the name of Truc who was crawling about on the ground, sniffing the dirt as though she was possessed by some animal. The reason as to why she was doing so was because she was trying to find Niao.

“Kang Wu, is some animal loose from the barn?” Prince An Liu asked as he passed by the garden clearing, noticing Truc in the underbrush.

“I don’t remember we had a breed of that description, sire.” Kang Wu said. “Oh, but judging by her appearance I’m assuming she’s the stray General Jian brought back from his ventures.”

“Oh, I see. A creature from the great expanse of unknown during his travels, eh? I wonder if she speaks my language?” He seems quite curious about Truc.

“If you mean idiocy, I do not think so, highness.” Kang Wu said quietly.

“Hmm? Did you say something Kang Wu?”

“Nothing of great importance, sire.”

“I’m going to approach the human.” He said dramatically as he took a step forward without any caution. ” I wonder if the outside variety bites.”

“I doubt it’d be very poisonous if they did, sir.”

“Girl of the common man, heed my entrance!” An Liu announced loudly from behind her and Truc froze, surprised by the man standing in front of her. Great, now who’s this quack? “I am the mighty ruler of your realm. Bow down before me!”

“Highness, she is already on the ground.” Kang Wu said.

“Uh…Right! I knew that! Then, stand up before me! Let me have a good look at you, stray one.” An Liu tried again and Truc stood up, keeping her head down all the while. Ugh! I can’t believe it’s the stupid prince. Gramma said he was trouble wherever he went and that the ministers had to do all his work for him.

“Speak up, common maiden. Tell the great me your name.”

“My name is Truc, sire.” And she curtsied because she was unsure of what else to do.

“So that’s what a common name sounds like.” He marveled. “I never heard of a name so simplistic. So unburdened by duty.” Ha! You don’t even have any duties!

He then began to ramble on and on about castles, horses, warlords, and bananas which he recently had been fortunate enough to receive from a friend overseas. He thought they were “divine.” Frankly, it was a load of bull and Truc was getting tired of staring at her own two feet.

“Hmm, come with me, village girl. Entertain me with tales of living with the great general, why don’t you?” He then invited her to have tea with him in the gazebo nearby and knowing she shouldn’t object lest she wanted her head lopped off, she obliged. Though it took all the stamina within her to do so. Niao, where are youuuu? Save meeee!

“…And then I told him that I was a prince. ‘I knew a handsome thing like you must’ve been royalty,’ he said. HAHAHAHAHA! Oh, I have the best friends, don’t you agree?” He said he wanted to hear her talk, but she didn’t even have time to get a word in. An Liu was so full of himself he had no room for anyone else. Unbelievable.

“Yes, they sound wonderful, majesty.” Truc bowed her head at every generic answer as she hid her face behind the teacup. It was so different from talking to Jian. Jian didn’t mind a loose tongue, but around the prince she might lose it if she’s not careful. Even thinking about Jian while she was with someone else brought about this sense of longing. Even more so because this was the prince they had no faith in whatsoever.

“So tell me, how’s the palace life treating you?” Are we actually going to talk about me now?

“It’s been more wonderful than a dream, your majesty.” It’s stifling as heck and I want to leave soon. “The servants are so nice and well-mannered.” I wish they had some more freedom though they work their butts off for you idiots. “The flowers have bloomed wonderfully in your gardens and they give me a sense of peace.” There’s stinkweed growing by my window and I have to barf every morning. “General Jian is keeping me great company as well. I thought he was someone very scary at first, but I’ve come to find that he is a very warm person and his heart is in the right place.” Since she meant the last thing she said, Truc found her face feeling warmer and a pinker shade dappled her cheeks. She tried to hide her happiness at just being able to mention Jian’s name normally. An Liu noticed her hesitation and chuckled to himself.

“Well, I shouldn’t keep you from whatever you were doing. General Jian should be home soon. Go and tell him I send my well wishes. And I expect to meet with him again soon.”

They stood and Truc bowed as he left first. An Liu seemed to be a bit chipper than usual.

“Don’t mind what he’s called you the whole day. It’s nothing personal, it’s just his upbringing.” Kang Wu said as he stood next to her and Truc bowed to him also. “I heard great things about you from Jian and horrible things about you from Je Ming. I’m curious to see which is the truth.”

“I doubt either of their perceptions of me are very true, sir. We haven’t known each other long enough for a detailed evaluation.” Shit, did I sound like a smartass?

“…Hmm, both of them got one thing right about you though. You have quite a tongue. Take good care of it.” Kang Wu said as he left.

“Jian was right. Adviser Kang Wu certainly has a lot on his plate…and up his butt.” Truc snickered, pitying the smart man attending the dumb one.

“Warf! Warf!” Niao barked as he jumped up from out of a bush.

“There you are, you little devil. Where have you been?” She ran up to him to find that his coat was muddied and had brambles all over it.

“Ugh! You stink! Come on, you need a bath!”

As Truc walked back to the Niao palace with Niao, she met Jian at the door also returning. She bowed to him happily until she noticed Je Ming, glaring at her next to him and did another reserved bow. Better get outta the way. My rival’s feeling prickly today.

“How long are you planning to keep the mutt around?” Je Ming asked on purpose as she passed by. It still stung whenever he talked down on her like that and she knew he didn’t mean the actual dog. Getting treated so nicely by Jian has made her soft in the center. She felt the world was much nicer than it actually should be.

“She can stay for as long as she wants. It’s my home, not yours.” Jian shut him down before he could continue and Truc smiled just a bit at the way he defended her.

Leading Niao to the fenced off area in the back of the palace, Truc began to fill a large wooden tub with well-water. Tiana and Natalie, smelling the awful odor from Niao also came out to speculate only to get dragged into dog cleaning duty as well.

“Je Ming always causes such a ruckus whenever he comes by.” Natalie began her rant. “He hasn’t changed in all the years we’ve known him to cling to the master either.”

“They’re childhood friends?” Truc asked. “Jian must have had a lot of patience.” Niao shook his wet fur and got everyone soaked.

“Well, Jian had a little brother who died of a fever when he was very young and Je Ming used to actually be much easier to tease than he is now. Back then, Jian always had to defend him from the kids that bullied him because of his silver hair. They’ve been together ever since. But things are changing now and it’s getting harder to tolerate one another’s behavior.” Tiana says. “There’s also been a lot of tension in the palace lately. Talks of assassination and disappearing maids and ministers. A plot to overthrow the prince and all of that hullabullooo. Something sinister is always afoot here. It keeps us on our toes.”

“Truc, we’ve laid out some nice new clothes on your bed for you. Make sure you take a bath tonight before dining with the general in the main dining hall, alright? After you’re done bathing, either call Tiana or me and we’ll do your hair and makeup for you.” Natalie advised.

“Why? Is it a special occasion tonight?” asked Truc.

“It’s the general’s birthday tomorrow, but he’ll be out the entire day so he said he wanted to celebrate it with you early tonight.” Natalie relayed the ridiculous plan Jian had told to her last night.

“But I haven’t prepared any presents or anything.” Truc started to panic.

“Oh, that’s easy, just tell him. ‘I’m your present!’ That’ll make him happy, hun.” Tiana teased. Truc just turned a mad shade of red.

“Tiana, don’t be ridiculous. It’s fine, Truc. He only wants your company as a present. He hasn’t celebrated his birthday in years, but he wanted to tonight so you might as well humor him.”

“…I’ll do what I can.” Calm down, crazy heart. It’ll just be a night like any other night.

Part 7

Meanwhile, having dinner together elsewhere was Kang Wu and An Liu who had taken their plates out to the balcony to stare at the stars whilst they ate their roast ducks and leg of lambs with cabbage. As Kang Wu sipped on his tea and An Liu looked about absentmindedly, there was a certain tension in the air.

Clearing his throat, An Liu began to pose a question. “Hey, Kang Wu, what did you think of the girl Jian brought back?”

“She’s a good person from what I can see and heard, sire.” Kang Wu said calmly. “If you’re worried that she’s spy, I don’t think you should. She’s not half as cunning as she’s trying to be.”

“I think my charms have really outdid themselves this time.” An Liu said randomly, ignoring what Kang Wu said.

“About what, highness?” Kang Wu asked.

“I think she’s fallen for me. REAL HARD!” An Liu dramatically pulled his head back, his long lustrous hair flying in the breeze. “Oh, what a sin it is to have such a gorgeous body and angelic soul as mine to have stun maidens wherever I go! My voice must be music to their common ears and medicine for their tired, wretched souls. “

“Hah?” Kang Wu could simply not comprehend.

“Did you see the look on her face as she spoke of the General in front of me? That sudden hesitation to mention his name as though it might offend me. That sudden turn of the neck to avoid my eyes. That sudden stutter and darkening red on her lips and pink in her blossoming cheeks. She has fallen. Fallen into my embrace of manliness, I just KNOW it!” And there An Liu goes off a tangent yet again.

“Sire, calm down. That is clearly not the case here.” Kang Wu tried to break down the door to the prince’s fantasies, but-

“But what can we do about this?! I am a noble, honorable, insatiable prince and she is simply a common girl that the great general rescued, brought together by coincidence. Her poor heart must be crying out tonight for she must miss me already, for she is groveling and pining after my shadow in the moonlight. Oh, life is simply too cruel. Little bird with your rosy cheeks and dimpled smile, this prince cannot possibly give himself all to you. I’m sorry!” An Liu began to cry crocodile tears. He flourishes each wipe with his handkerchief. “Kang Wu, is there nothing to be done about this? How can I let such a young thing suffer all because this great prince exists?!” As An Liu boo-hooed all the way to bed, Kang Wu looked up at the skies for answers.

Kang Wu sat there thinking all the while about what this sudden outburst meant and then it went click in his head as it did in most genius’s heads. An Liu was experiencing what one would call the first crush, perhaps. In the prince’s fifteen years of existence never once had he paid any mind to a single girl or person other than himself. Perhaps, the sudden appearance of a different breed of maiden has intrigued him. Too bad she’s already head over heels for the general though. This Kang Wu knew and he also knew the general shared the same feelings for the girl he had taken in as his own. Love was blooming all over the palace and Kang Wu can’t help but notice that it was bothering him quite a bit because he had to be the mediator for a subject he has no interest in whatsoever.

There was bound to be trouble so long as Jian harbored such affections towards her and if the prince’s interests continues to be peaked than he’ll probably resort to his own measures. Je Ming has been irritable as of late and has locked himself away in his room constantly which meant fewer meetings about the rebellion across the country couldn’t be discussed. Everyone was so selfish and giddy with themselves over a girl that they had forgotten the state of the country, it seems. This, in turn, did not sit well with Kang Wu in the least who was the only one who took anything seriously around here.

“I take back what I’ve said before. She might be rather unknowingly cunning after all. How troublesome.” Kang Wu sighed. “I suppose it’s up to me now to dispose of the little pet before things around here can get too overbearing. It was always a mistake to let a commoner into the palace. They upset the balance the gods have always intended.”

 That night, a small group of people holding torches met in the darkest part of the palace courtyard. Kang Wu, who seemed to be their leader was whispering something to them under his dark cloak. Not every assassination plan goes well the first time, but perhaps tonight they would be lucky.

Pilot: “Super Useless”

“Hmm…should I wear the pink one or the yellow one today? Uuuugh, whatever, let’s go with both!” Being indecisive as always, Dino slipped one foot into a pink sock and the other into a yellow sock. But on her way out of her room she noticed a wonderful navy blue and black pair on her table. “Oh ho, maybe…”

“Dino! Hurry up or you’ll be late!” Her father called as she heard the sound of sizzling fish downstairs. “The helioportal waits for no one, you know!”

“Uuuuh, maybe next time.” She locked her bedroom on her way out and raced down the stairs to see the cat had already started eating her grilled fish on the table. “Bad Bubu, get off the table.” She plucked the cat by its fat stomach and made a beeline for the soup. She slurped up everything, gobbled up the leftover fish, and stuffed a piece of waffle in her mouth before giving her mother and father a hug on the way out.

“Here, it’s barbecued kebabs, pork, beef, and squid! Make sure you share with your friends!” Her mother called out as Dino put on some shoes. A nice pair of imitation green snakeskin. She was a strange child, but then again, most people in this small city were. Everyone had a strange sense of “costume.”

“Thanks, mum! And, I’m off!” She made a mad dash for the door with the package safely tucked away in her rucksack.

“Dino! Are you done?” Chummy, the girl next door, but not really, yelled out from her second-story window across the road.

“Yepp! Wanna come?”

“Are we pickin’ up Nut on the way?”

“She said she’d meet us there! Hurry!”

The two found themselves running toward the transport station. Trains were used here once, about a hundred years ago or so. Some places still use them but in their city, helioportals are all the rage. They weren’t exactly like teleportation portals, nobody had invented those yet. They were sort of like a high-speed bubble one got on, punched in the destination, and within a guaranteed limit of ten minutes, wherever you were going, well, you would be there. It was very convenient and it didn’t obstruct traffic like the main roads. No, people here traveled by sky and canals.

“Nut said she’s been waiting for the past five minutes.” Chummy checked her watchphone for new messages.

“Tell her we’re almost there. It’s not our fault we live farther away from that place than she does.” Dino took out her watchphone too and snapped a photo of the horizon with Chummy’s face looking rather discontent. “On our way to the Maxius Gardens. Picnic time with the girls!” Dino then sent it to her life feed wall where likes started pouring in immediately with comments from past visitors to friends and family who haven’t visited the gardens yet. “Oh, Tiana also just messaged. She said she can make it within half an hour since she’s coming from a foreign country. Somewhere called Azela Point.”

“They just recently finished building the gardens, right? The blog page said that the type of artificial grass they’re growing only grows this time of year too.” Chummy was very excited to see the artificial trees and plants the gardens had to offer. She had only seen trees and grass in picture books and textbooks at school. She couldn’t wait to see some real vegetation in person. “It’s hard to believe a power plant used to be there. Until it exploded, of course.”

“It happened in year 3156 right? Man, feels just like yesterday. They said it was an accident too. As if we can believe that. When something big happens the S.S.O.S.S. always finds some way to cover it up.” Dino then saw the woods appear beyond the bubble. “Oh, look! We’re here!” Excited, she jumped to her feet and the bubble shook.

“Hey, watch it!” Chummy tried to hold onto the railings beside her.

The bubble docked on a nearby balcony of a building where people were also ascending. Tourists of every kind walked off to take pictures and gawk at the trees and birds that flew by once in a while. A tour guide lead them through a doorway to a long escalated hallway where they could reach the exit outside. The brightness from the artificial sun felt hot upon their skin and the girls had to shade themselves immediately.

“So this is what unregulated temperatures felt like back then.” Chummy huffed, already sweating. “I don’t see how the plants could survive in weather this hot.” The two found a perfect shady spot beneath an Oak and Maple tree and sat down, legs sprawled out. There must have been an air conditioner somewhere nearby because the area felt cooler than normal. There was a nice breeze and everything.

“Feel free to pluck some of the grass and leaves to feel. They’ll grow back immediately.” A tour guide robot floated by and told them. “The textures are very strange and fun.”

Dino did just that, plucking and feeling and tearing into the vegetation and sniffing at the juices that came out. The grass smelled sweet and left a green stickiness on her hand that the robot immediately cleaned with a laser.

“Feel free to try some of the fruit on the trees over there too. They’re the pride and joy of our scientists who have spent countless days and nights to perfect their sweetness and texture.” The robot offered. Dino stared at the fruit on the trees, feeling hungry already.

“Guess not everything here is artificial in a sense.”

“By the way, where’s Nut?” asked Chummy as she sat up to look around. “She said she was waiting in the area.”

“Quack! Quack!” Suddenly they heard the distant cry of a duck.

“Oh no, she didn’t-” Chummy was about to look for shelter, but it was much too late. A duck had waddled out of the underbrush from close by, had spied her, and made a mad dash for her. “NO! STAY AWA- OOOUCH!” The mad speckled duck had just bitten Chummy on her nose. “Goshdarnit, dumb duck!”

“Quark! Quark!” It screeched as it tried to peck at her eyes next.

“He’s only angry because he senses the fear in you.” Nut, who was taking a nap in the underbrush, walked out with leaves still in her head. “Yo.” She did a salute.

“Heyo!” Dino saluted back.

“HELP!” Chummy screamed as she raced towards Nut.

Nut yawned and stretched. “Down, Hoover.” She told the duck and the duck stopped, still glaring at Chummy who was hiding behind Nut. “That’s a good boy.” Nut picked up the duck and patted its head. It was the sort of animal that looked like it was constantly constipated. Its eyes had a tendency to not blink for long periods of time so they looked bloodshot. He had a few screws loose.

“Quark!” It yelled at Chummy who was trying to get close enough to sit down again.

“Keep that thing away from me!” Chummy hated it. “It totally ruined the mood.”

“Hoover’s just trying to see if you’re worthy enough to be a friend.” Nut said as she held onto Hoover.

“GARK! GARK!” Now another sound came from the distance.

“Oh nooooooo….” Chummy knew that sound all too well too. “Not aga-” A dog as big as a lion had jumped onto her back and was slobbering all over her the next moment. Chummy then sighed and gave in, trying to get his heavy paws off her shoulder. “Was it something that I did in my past life? I never asked to be popular with one kind of animal and be hated by another.”

“Where’d you go, Pope!?” Tiana came running down the hill next with a baggy of doggy treats. She spotted the others and waved. “OH HIII!!” Here voice rang out throughout the whole space.

Tiana called Pope back to her and they all sat around in a circle, Chummy, sitting the farthest away to avoid the animals.

“I brought barbecue!” Dino yelled, taking out the bag she had in her rucksack. When she opened it, she found out her mother had packed a ten-layer lunch box for them. “Ooooh, so much.”

“You’ll have no problem finishing it off, right Quarkers?” Nut asked the duck who was still glaring at Chummy and hasn’t stopped for the last five minutes.

As they dug into the food and brought out what each of them brought as a desert options from cookies to cream cakes in their infinite bags, Tiana started the real discussion as to why they met there that day.

“So, has anything irregular happened to you guys lately?” She asked as she bit into a sandwich.

“Irreghularr? Like ffwhat?” Chummy slurred as she bit into a juicy kebab.

“Like you’re tucked in tight at night and all of a sudden, you feel a jolt and wake up in a random darkly lit place where a tiki statue stares down at you?” Tiana had a confused look in her eyes.

“Has that been happening to you, Titi?” asked Dino.

“Yeah, it started a month ago and has been happening every night. The doctor said it was a normal phase, but…I don’t feel normal. Ah, but check out what I can do now!” Tiana then held out her hands and a strange glow emanated from them. The glow then dispersed into balls of light that enveloped Chummy’s kebab and it started to float out of her mouth and towards Pope. He immediately gobbled it up, spitting out the stick.

“Hey! That was mine!” She pouted, but grabbed for another one in the box anyways.

“So you can levitate things now?” Nut asked, impressed.

“Yeah, only small and light things though. I tried levitating Pope yesterday but couldn’t do it.” Tiana seemed quite happy despite the failure.

“It’s probably puberty.” Dino said. “We all went through it a year or so ago ourselves. But we had different experiences when it happened.” Dino recalled the first time she had her phase. “I remember I got really mad at my cat for no reason and I wanted to sleep in her litter box. But my parents wouldn’t let me.” As she said so, a pair of ears and a tail popped up out of nowhere on her head and back.

“Ah great, another animal.” Chummy sighed.

“At least you can actually do something with your powers, Titi. I can only turn into a cat-girl and talk with felines.” Dino remarked feeling rather bitter about her abilities.

“What about you, Chummy?” Tiana asked with stars in her eyes.

“Ah, I have the greatest power out of all of you. It’s so great you don’t ever want me to use it. It could seriously harm you.” Chummy warned.

“Chummy’s a face shapeshifter.” Nut said matter-of-factly as she fed some lettuce to the duck.

“Hey, I was just getting to the good part!” Chummy moaned in detest.

“She can shapeshift her face into anyone else’s with one condition.” Nut continued. “Her face can only contort itself into someone ugly, in appearance and nature. That’s why it’s scarring when Chummy uses her powers and freaks the rest of us out.”

“Aw, you spoiled it!!” Chummy then transformed her face into the old mean neighbor who lives next door. “Damn you, youngsters!”

“But her voice doesn’t change so she fails to be a true impostor.” Dino laughed.

“Anyway, the great Chummy here had no problems when her powers started settling in.” Chummy turned her nose up in the air.

“Sure, you did. Remember when you tried to confess your feelings to that one boy after school but failed because you got nervous and shapeshifted into your uncle’s face. That must’ve shocked the hell out of him. He transferred out of school a week later. Right, Quarkers?” Nut laughed.

“QUARK! QUARK!” Hoover also seemed to be laughing.

“HA! And what about you, huh, Nutty McNut Nut?” Chummy taunted. “I remember when your powers started acting up too.”

“Right, the seagulls in our neighborhood started to hate me for some reason so they pooed on me whenever I took a walk by the beach and dogs barked at me as I passed by. When I went to school I smelled like I haven’t taken a bath in weeks and everyone avoided me. But when Hoover came along things got better.” Nut petted her duck.

“It certainly did not! That duck almost got us suspended for delinquent behavior and trespassing!” Chummy yelled recalling a terrible late night fight behind the school when the head delinquent practically got beaten up by Hoover. He never looked at a duck the same again.

“I can’t help it if he’s a gangsta at heart.”

“What are your powers, Nut?” Tiana asked.

Nut just pointed to Hoover.

“Quark! Quark! Quark!” He quarked and suddenly it sounded as though ten more ducks responded from somewhere close by.

“Here they come…” Chummy shook with exasperation and dread as feathers fell down to her head and an odd stench of bird wafted over. Tiana looked up and noticed a v-formation of birds making their way towards the group from the sky. And then they were enveloped by ducks of all kinds, quacking and waddling about their space. Green, blue, red, yellow, black, all ducks of size and color came to rest by Nut’s side. They seemed to like her very much. They cuddled up by her feet and back, seemingly ready to take a nap with her. But none of them took any food unless offered as though they had been trained to do so even though they were obviously wild creatures.

“I can call on ducks.” Nut said. “That’s my ability. Or Hoover can do it for me. It’s useful when you want to get rid of seagulls since ducks can be pretty territorial.”

“So you’re like a duck queen? A duck summoner!?” Tiana asked, mystified.

“Meh.” Nut shrugged as a duckling snuggled onto her shoulder to begin preening itself.

“An absolute waste of space, if you ask me.” Chummy remarked and got another glare from not just Hoover this time, but also the dozens that had just landed nearby. They sent her so many death stares she had to look down and relent.

“And this is why you’re not popular with ducks, Chummy.” Nut laughed. “Play nice with my fine-feathered friends and they won’t look like they’re ready to carry you off to some pond to drown you.”

“I don’t WANT to be popular with ducks!” Chummy hmmphed. “We won’t ever get along. Ever!”

“Well, it appears they like Tiana and Dino.” The ducks had already began to fall asleep by the other two’s side.

“Anyway, change of topic! Forget our superpowers-” Chummy started.

“I wouldn’t exactly call them super-” Dino intercepted.

“As I was saying, let’s talk about that new dude and his groupies that just transferred to the academy! What was his name? Uh, oh yeah, Horatio. What a name!” Chummy seemed very hyped up over the new boy. “What do you think his ability is? Or maybe he’s a human without one? It would be kinda nice to not have powers. We’re so useless even with powers.”

“I saw him use his powers once.” Dino chimed as she chewed on a popsicle.

“What?! When was this?!” Chummy jumped up.

“It was during the Ludwall Ball Game. I went to watch my brother and stayed behind to check out the other events. It was only for a moment, but I noticed that the goalkeeper was acting kind of weird. Like he was being mind-controlled or something.” Dino recalled how drunk the goalkeeper was acting, but thought nothing of it at the time. “When I looked over at Horatio his eyes were glowing green, but since he was in constant movement no one seems to have caught on.”

“He probably used the ability to snag himself a reputation at school. Everyone who has a useful ability will use it. Unlike people like us who become the butt of their jokes.” Nut had some conflicting interactions with one of his groupies recently.

“Oh yeah, that one friend of his, uhhh…” Tiana couldn’t remember.

“Qeenan.” Nut said, snapping off the top of her Pocky stick. “He pisses me off.”

“Wasn’t he the one that summoned that strange-looking beast from another realm that one day?” Tiana was with Nut when it happened.

“Yeah, that monster went and tore up Betsy and he didn’t even apologize!” Betsy was the rabbit that the class was taking care of in the greenhouse behind the school. “He just said ‘Oh, what a shame, small lives don’t live long anyway. Don’t fret’ and went on his way.” Nut spat out.

“He’s disgusting.” Tiana remembered burying the poor rabbit in the yard.

“You know who’s really disgusting? That Jay dude who thinks he’s so hot.” Chummy said. “They’re all in the same group. I’m not surprised he has his edgy quirks too. He tried to put his arms around me the other day after class when I was busy cleaning up, but I wouldn’t have it so I screamed. Before the teachers came though, he whacked his hand against the desk and yowled in pain right as they walk in. When the teachers saw that they immediately placed the blame on me! He blamed me and said that a natural loud mouth like me was always going around causing trouble. On his way out the little freak whispered, “Lowlevel power users should just submit to the like of us highlevel users. At least we can contribute to society.'” Chummy spit-spat as well.

“As far as I’m concerned, all of them are bastards of the same bloodline and they’re targeting us.” Tiana deduced.

“But what have we ever done to them?” Chummy, frustrated, laid down on the grass and ruffled her own hair.

“Exactly, we did nothing. That’s the mystery.” Dino didn’t know either.

“They haven’t tried anything on you, have they, Ti?” Nut asked.

“Not yet, but one of the girls in the group has been eyeing me since last week and I don’t like it one bit. She looks mad. Like she just found another toy to play with.” Tiana sighed as she petted a sleeping Pope for comfort.

“I sense something bad in the air.” Nut said. “Those guys could have chosen to target plenty of other useless power users in the school, but they go for us and try to win over everyone else’s hearts? Something doesn’t add up.”

“Quark! Quark! Quark!” Hoover quarked.

“We always hang out in an exclusive group and we never paid them any attention. They’re a tough opponent to beat since they’ve allied themselves with the teachers and even the kids in the delinquent class. I have no idea who’s on our side anymore.” Dino, also tired laid down on a duck, using it as a pillow, which it didn’t seem to mind. It was a rather plump duck.

“How about you, Dino? Any of them tried anything on you?” Chummy asked.

“Well, after that ball game, I think that Horatio fella tried to talk to me but I didn’t want anything to do with him so I ignored him.” Dino recalled.

“Hmm, wonder what he wanted?” Nut had a strange fantasy go through her head and chuckled out of nowhere.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. I just thought of something hilarious and insane.”

“Do tell.”

“Well, what if, and this is only if, what if that Horatio dude liked Dino, but since she’s not willing to give him the time of day…He’s sicking his cronies on us, her allies? Far-fetch’d idea, right?” Nut snickered. “Forget what I said. I just have too many delusions in my head.”

“…” Dino remained silent, thinking perhaps.

“Dino? What do you think? Could it be Horatio has the hots for you?” Chummy burst out laughing as well. “As if someone would have a crush on Dino though…must be a weirdo.” Chummy shook her head. “Or desperate, or insane, or very LONELY! HAHAHAHAHA!” She laughed.

“But to be honest they all are weird.” Tiana reasoned. “We would get along, if only they were nicer.”

“…” Dino still silent.

“Dino?” Nut asked, worried. “Don’t think about too much, it was just my imagination.”

“…”

“Hey, you’re beginning to freak me out, dude. Stop it.” Chummy shook Dino’s shoulder and at that moment Dino looked up as though she had just had an epiphany.

“That must be it!” Dino said without context.

“What is it?”

“I get it now! Those flowers, those chocolates, those strange poems slipped into my locker…” Dino rambled.

“Dino, what is it?!” Tiana had to shake her.

“That Horatio guy might actually like me!” Dino declared.

“………………………………………………………………………………….” This was everyone else’s reaction.

– 2 seconds later –

“HUUUUUUUUHHHHHH??!?!?!!” They screamed in unison.

Pilot: “Faraway”

“Introduce yourself now.” The stern headmaster instructed me as she sat down again in her creaky chair, eyeing me as though I was a pickled object in a jar.

How should I go about doing that? What should I tell them? That I feel like crap right now? Honesty was always my best policy…

“My parents passed away in December. I now live with my aunt, her cat, and her boyfriend in a cramped apartment with poor ventilation. My father was a magician and my mother was a sorceress. They worked year-round and only occasionally sent me cards to wish me a happy birthday. I don’t have magical powers so you can call me odd if you want. My name is Everdin Focius and I am not a magician.” I stunned the whole class into silence and they stared at me with great unease at the deliverance of my speech.

“Alright, you can sit down over there. Try not to cause too much trouble, alright?” The crooked nose instructor barked as I stepped off the podium.

I sat down in a seat in the corner, the hard wood panels in the floor creaked as I took each step toward an untimely doom. I didn’t like window seats. Windows seats are cold and bare and your mind wander when you sit near one. I don’t want my mind to wander. Not back to that day, not ever. Window seats also happen to be the place where those who want to run away sit.

“Hello there.” A boy next to me tried to make small talk, but I wasn’t feeling it so I ignored him.

“Hi,” I replied without looking at him. “Please abstain from talking to me unless necessary.” I told him coldly.

I left him with no room for response and then I knew I was now free to do as I pleased. So I took out a small mechanism I had hidden in my pocket and started to tap at it. It was called a watchamaroo, it’s for children whose dispositions tend to be difficult. If I tap on it enough times, my nerves will calm and then I can settle back into normalcy again.

At lunchtime, the other children let me be to wander on my own. I stepped out into the courtyard where some of the boys were playing soccer a distance away and took out the watchamaroo again.

Tapping on it endlessly won’t help you, you know.

It appears my head knows me better than I do…But I continued while sitting under the shade of a maple tree in the yard. And I counted each click and clack of the device. Don’t take me back, please. Not again. Not this time.

“What kind of magician do you want to be, Ever?” Darn you…I looked to my right and my childhood friend, Lenalle, was sitting beside me. I raised my arm and it went right through him. “Silly, you know I’m only an illusion.” He chuckled that laugh that always got caught in his throat and bubbled before it came out. That was how I remembered him. “Tiana graduated a year before us. We have to catch up to her soon, you know. I bet she’s real lonely all by herself at that academy.”

“Go away.” I told him. “Don’t talk about those stupid things near me again.” I sat with my back to him.

He sighed, “What was it that little girl used to tell me? I’m going to master magic and make something great, was it? The Everdin Focius was going to create a magic spell no one has ever seen. She was going to purify the world of evil or something.”

“And you were going to be there with me when I do it…” I mumbled. The tapping stopped. My fingers stopped.

“That’s right. But…fate had different plans. That’s that.” He said.

“How can you be so cool about all this? You’re dead…I killed you.” I turned around to face him finally. The wind blew and my heart sunk again.

“You didn’t kill me. I died protecting you. That was my decision. Remember who you used to be, idiot, before you become the evil you once sought to destroy.” His hand hovered over my head and then it retreated. “Ah, I forgot…We can’t touch anymore…” And he smiled that half-grin of his that made the words get stuck in my throat.

“In my world nobody gets hurt or has to die cruelly. Nobody has to leave while hurting the other. I want everyone to be able to redefine their happiness! If I can come to treasure someone one day, I want to be able to tell that person wholeheartedly!”

“That was what six-year-old, naive, little me told you.” I said.

“That’s right. Are you going to grant me that one promise at least?” He asked.

“But I’m not a magician anymore.”

“Then do what you can as a human. Nobody says you had to use magic to do anything.”

“But what can I do?” I looked over my shoulder for his answer, but the illusion was gone. “What am I doing? That’s the third time I had the same conversation with him this week.” My life was caught in a replay, trying to resolve my identity crisis. But as I looked at the sun that was setting, I knew he was right. I had to move forward. “I treasure you, Lenalle.” I said to no one in particular. “I can at least keep part of that promise.”

Pilot: [Evalas Breakers]

032654

021598

069851

087596

085493

“Ah, found it…then if I take this and this and move them over here…or how about rearranging this one or maybe breaking this code apart.”

“The room has been unlocked! Have a nice day!”

“Aw, thanks Jelly.”

“Natalie, dinner!” Her mother called from downstairs.

“Coming! Just give me three minutes!”

“Error! The room needs a pass code!”

“Aw, c’mon, I thought we were in. Jelly, help me find a key. It should start with the number…judging by previous patterns…the number 5…I believe.”

“The room is unattainable.”

“Aww, are you giving up on me already?”

“Not giving up. Picking smarter option.”

“Geez, fine, we’ll call it quits for tonight…Hmm, hang on, wait a minute, is that-” She hurriedly typed in what recently appeared across the assistant board. “C’mon, c’mon…”

“Beep. Access granted.” A green screen appeared and a download bar began to race against the clock.

“Oooh, goodie. Now we gotta skedaddle before those guys return. Resetting all settings back to what it was originally should be easier than taking it apart. Jelly, are you properly keeping them out?”

“You got it.”

“Hmm, and why don’t we leave this here as a hint.”

“Natalie, if you don’t get down here right this minute, the dog gets your steak and potatoes!” Her mother yelled again.

“I’m done. mom!” She turned back to the screen. “And reset.”

“Done. Done. Done. Lalala!” Celebrated her companion.

“Thanks for the help, Jelly. Get some rest now.” She turned the computer off and stood up to stretch. “All in a day’s work! Now time for din-din!” Right before she left the room she picked up a usb flash drive with the new data she had just “borrowed.” She tucked it into the pocket of her jacket and began to skip down the stairs by twos.

She ate her dinner in a hurry and reminded her mom she was running out to the store to pick up some soda and chips before taking off at a sprint down the street. On the way, Natalie took out her cellphone, checking for any new messages, and sure enough the same person who had contacted her last night asked if she had the info he wanted. She opened up the messenger app and asked where they should meet. Not ten minutes later, the unknown person who only identified himself as agent W-03 met her in a cafe in a secluded alleyway.

“Did you meet with any trouble?” He asked gruffly as she sat down opposite him at the table.

“What’ll you be having, Miss?” The waiter came up and asked politely as she sat down.

“Orange juice and a coffee drizzled flan, please.” She smiled back, a bit weary from the overnight work.

“Alright.” He walked away unaware of their transaction.

“There wasn’t much trouble. I have my helpers in high and low places keep the occupants of the ‘room’ occupied while I took what you asked for.” She took out the flashdrive and waved it in the masked man’s face and then she placed it down on the table. His sunglasses glimmered for a moment and in the sunset she thought she saw a hazy grey eye reveal itself. “Check for yourself. And make sure you send the money directly to my account, if you please.” She yawned as her desserts made its way out on a tray.

The man took out a busted laptop and she had to stifle a snort. He inserted the flashdrive into the usb port and booted up the laptop. His eyes widened when he saw a slew of data make its way across the screen in a tiny blue window. Several pictures popped up looking like they were classified government files and he smirked.

“You did a cleaner job than I expected. There’s even some things in here that Copycat couldn’t even get his hands on.” He closed the laptop and took out his phone. “Check your account. I’m sure you’ll find the sum satisfactory. My boss will be very happy.” He stood up to leave and tipped his hat. “Pleasure doing business with you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a few more deals to make or break.” And like that he brusquely walked out of the room like an authoritative jackass of a figure.

“Tch, of all the people you had to compare me to it had to be Copycat? Geez, what a letdown.” She then took out her phone and checked her statement. “Pheeew,” she whistled. “Welp, I knew what I was getting myself into when I accepted the job, but damn, this’ll keep me fed for a while.” There, on her bank statement was a notification that someone had just deposited a whopping ten million dollars into her account. She took another bite of her flan and grinned. “I wonder how the others are doing?” Natalie then opened up an app she had just downloaded on her phone. It was something a friend of a friend of a friend of a relative developed and recently only allowed a few qualified people to download…It was simply called Evalas.

Evalas was an app created for one specific type of people- hackers and programmers. But it didn’t require any previous experience because the process one took to use Evalas is completely different from just sitting at a computer and punching in numbers and letters though you only did observe her do that earlier. Evalas was a new type of hacking program and the jargon used on the forum site alone was like crazy gibberish. It was like a whole new language from a different universe. While using Evalas, one is required to create a bot partner. When Natalie signed up she created her partner Jelly who quickly became her best friend. All of Jelly’s functionality and features were also inputted by Natalie herself in order for the bot to function to the main hackers needs. It was convenient and less stressful when you had a partner telling you, “I’ll make you lemonade once you’re done” in the midst of trying to read a bazillion numbers and letters in under five minutes. Most of Evalas’s features are still unknown and the actual creator has abstained from any interactions with its users at the current moment.  It’s a mysterious application that has brought together some of the world’s most seriously cold and devious geniuses, and then there was Natalie who was the aloof oddball in the group. She hacked with something she called “luck.” And she succeeded with a percent rate of 67% which was sort of like taking a bet. It was only recently that she was propositioned to use her “skills” to take on jobs, most of them likely illegal.

“Aaah” she sighed as she finished her glass of orange juice and hopped out of her seat. As she stood up to leave, she left a twenty dollar tip at the table since she felt generous. She passed by the waiter from earlier and she could just hear him inaudibly mumble into his collar. “Don’t worry, I don’t like being compared to someone like you either, Icosa.”

She smirked as she left the shop. “Dang, Copycat must be scrapped for cash if he’s working part-time. Hehe…welp, we all have our bad luck days.” She hummed. If Copycat checked his pockets later he would find a Chocobat Bar in his apron pocket with a note entailing ten simple digits: “4968531824 botan shoppe, catch me if you can” it said. So the rivalry continues.

Making sure she had a solid alibi, Natalie stopped by a snack shop and picked up some soda and chips, finishing the chips on the way home and leaving the bottle of soda half empty. Once home, she withdrew to her room where Jelly woke up upon her opening the door.

“Welcome home! Welcome home!” it said happily.

“I’m back, Jelly. But it’s late, so let’s get some sleep, okay?” She fell down on top of the bed and pulled the covers over her head. “Good night.”

“Sweet dreams.” Jelly also turned itself off.

~~~

“Beep, beep. Message received! Oh, Icosa, wake up! You have a job!” Jelly yelled from its screen in her phone.

“Hmm,” Natalie checked the clock. It hasn’t even been five hours since she fell asleep and she grumbled as she sat up.

“What job, Jelly? I don’t remember making any more deals.” She yawned as she dragged herself to her PC, booting it up only to see Jelly running across the screen in panic.

“It’s a personal request.” Jelly said. “From Tuumtune and Pablokiller. They sent you a direct message on Evalas! Check it!” Jelly pulled up the messages and Natalie glimpsed at the messages the two users wrote together.

“Wanna form a party?” it asked.

“What party? I haven’t partied in years…” Natalie responded back.

“Oho, so she’s awake.” The message replied. “Hey wanna go on a Kraken hunt? We could split the pay?” The users asked.

“Sorry, I don’t do group outings.” She replied. “Group crackdowns are a pain. The likelihood of us getting caught are higher if you guys do a sloppy job too, so no.”

“Well, too bad.” A laugh could be heard as a dark looking bot appeared on her screen. It seems to be based on model Vheltha-96, a template one could use for their bot design at the beginning. “You don’t have a choice.” it said.

“What the-” Natalie jumped back as her screen flashed a bright red and then faded to black; a new window popped up with a proposition to join a Kraken hunt. Jelly, standing at the side of the screen tried to push the dark bot away but failed.

“Icosa, this could be serious.” Jelly said as it looked at me worriedly.

Natalie took a few deep breaths and then sat down, composed. She cracked her fingers and smirked which Jelly took as a sign that she accepted the challenge. “Jelly, pull up window mode Freyra and Sixty-seven-hundred. Now wish me luck.”

“Roger!” Jelly got to work immediately.

Natalie then put on some green-tinted glasses connected by wires to a round black box connected to her computer. The wires lit up as she turned the glasses on and clicked accept on the screen.

Another window opened with a welcome screen and Natalie saw the two users who had called her out. Two girls around her age stared back at her, equally dark circles under their eyes. One of them yawned into the webcam and another tried to smile but her room was so dark it looked eerily like a free-floating pair of dentures were flashing themselves at her.

“How long have you guys been hunting this Kraken for you to look this ragged?” She asked.

“Three straight days and two nights,” one of them responded, her voice dry.

“I see, so you were desperate.” Natalie opened up a nearby file on the screen with an almost cryptic message attached. This must be what their employer required. The reward was only a mere ten thousand dollars. The due date to solve the problem was by tomorrow. Their mission was to find a Kraken, a code that’s implanted itself into the current stream of data and wreaking havoc by rearranging the info getting delivered. Krakens should generally be easy to track so why are these guys struggling, she questioned as she looked at the pattern of numbers streaming by. And then something odd appeared.

698532

784521

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A letter had appeared in the stream. But that’s not the root of the problem.

“At first we thought it was the letters too but when we tried to get rid of them all and imported in the undamaged data, it didn’t work.” Pablokiller informed her.

“Hmm, that means it’s probably deeper in the system. We might even have to travel to the wall.” Natalie said. “Jelly, check how strong the wall is.”

“It’s currently at fifty-four percent and decreasing as we speak.” Jelly said.

“That’s where we’ll find the Kraken. Let’s go.” Natalie turned the glasses to a different setting, the lighted rim dimmed. She closes her eyes for but a second and then she is no longer sitting in her chair but standing on a checkerboard plane. Stretched out before her are pixelated clouds and a sunset. Beyond the plane you could see a wall that is breaking and sitting atop the wall was an angry  looking Kraken.

Pablokiller and Tuumtune also “teleported” to the plane and began to inspect the area. The wall coming down meant the rest of the info being transmitted was getting distorted. And the pixelation was only growing worse.

“What’s the game plan, mates?” Natalie turned and asked.

“Should we attack it with a cannon?” Tuumtune asked.

Natalie shook her head, that’ll probably make it worse.

“Should we distract it and rebuild the wall while it’s distracted?”

Natalie shook her head again, that approach only has a temporary effect.

“What do you suggest, Icosa?” They looked at her expectantly.

“Let’s feed it some poisons, shall we?” She smirked again. “I have just the codes it needs. Too much of a bad thing is a good thing in this case. Jelly! Take the Helioaxis and Runnakular codes out from the archival folder!”

About ten minutes later, the Kraken having gotten addicted to eating the drug exploded on the spot.

“You guys are good, right?” Natalie asked before leaving. “You can repair the wall yourself, right?”

“Yeah” they nodded. “Oh and we’ll split the money with you later!”

“Keep it, I certainly don’t need it.” Natalie was about to transport out when Tuumtune stopped her with a question.

“Then how about we get together for some coffee?” She asked with a brighter smile. “And snacks?”

“Well…I guess I don’t mind.” Natalie said before teleporting back.

“Bye, Icosa!” They waved and she sort of waved back.

“Welcome back! Welcome back!” Jelly said excitedly as Natalie opened her eyes to the real world again.

“I’m back, Jelly.” She yawned as she stood up. “Now for more sleep.” She crashed onto the bed for the second time that night.

~~~

“What do you think?” Tuumtune asked Pablokiller.

“I think we’ll get along just fine.” Pablokiller said as she took a sip of tea.

“Welcome back, Truc!” Her bot shouted as she teleported back to the office.

“Welcome back, Diana!” Diana’s bot also welcomed her home.

“We’re back!” Truc crashed onto the sofa. “How’d you get back faster than me?”

“I have a more efficient pathway.” Diana said. “Isn’t that right, Moro?”

“Yep, yep! Best bot right here!” Diana’s bot, Moro, chirped.

“Hmm, tired yet, Luku?” Truc asked her own bot.

“A bit,” it replied quietly. She took that as a sign and turned off the computer for their much needed rest.

“So that Icosa…we’ve certified that she’s proper Evalas user material, right?” Diana asked Truc. “Should we invite her to join us after that coffee date?”

“Sure, why not. The office needs some new faces anyway.” Truc took a look at a bulletin board on the wall. “One down, a few more to go.” She took a red marker and x-ed out Natalie’s face and then circled the face of a man, also supposedly a hacker and user of Evalas.

– fin –

Oh, and here’s a doodle of Jelly who’s just trying to be the best Jelly possible.

jelly