Universally enthusiastic chaos-artist & storyteller

Chapter ten: Sugar and spice

The kitchen smells sweet of sugar and mangoes. I was planning to make a chutney with them when I bought them but by boiling the pieces up in sugar and leaving them to dry you can get a very pleasant confection without many ingredients.
It’s a trick yaye taught me for when there was a good mango harvest and they were selling them for next to nothing. 
These would keep far longer than the fresh fruit and do well on their own, as an ingredient in pastries or as a topping on savoury dishes to brighten up the flavours and give a nice contrast.
I take the pot off the fire and strain off the syrup. This I’ll keep for sweet tea. I pull out a large rectangular mesh strainer and separate the mango clump into individual chucks so they don’t stick together.
There’s an urgent rapping on the door.
“Hui the cat’s coming.”
I look at my sticky hands, then to the door “Kinda in the middle of something here.”
Himowa opens the door, sees my condition and decides “I’ll distract her.” She closes the door then beyond it I hear Himowa calling out to Elizabeth and dragging her onwards to the parlour. 
I chuckle at it, then hurry up with the job at hand.
With the tray done I should let these dry. 
We used the sun at home. Just leave them out on the roof and come back later.
It’s not hot enough in here, I could set up the oven but I need that for another candy…
I peek my head out into the hallway.
Looks like the coast is clear.
I pick up the tray and quickly cross the corridor and head down into the bowels of the ship.

I step up to the boiler, a pace at a time and try to gauge the temperature. 
They need to be warm, like a hot summer day, but not so hot they could bake.
I think this spot works.
I set the tray down.
Now just remember to pick them up before going to bed.

Back in the kitchen Himowa is waiting for me.
“Alice went back to flying the ship. She just wanted to know what the smell was, you were planning the sweet tea for tonight right?” 
Her smile is wide and confident “Then I bluffed the right thing.” She beams “So are they done yet?” 
“The mangoes need to dry. And while they do that we can move on to the chaho crackers.”
“How many types are you making?”
“As many as I can get away with without endangering supplies.”
“Nice, need any help?” 
“Yobu taught you how to cook?”
She shrugs “Not really…that was your thing with him. But I don’t mind learning it from you.” 
“Oh, well, in that case, I guess you can chop the chaho nuts.” 
I pull out a chopping board and knife for her, she looks at it curiously.
“What happened to the knife I gave you?”
I hiss uncomfortably “Oh, well…it’s in the bottom drawer.”
She looks at me with an apprehensive expression. I can only guess she’s wondering whether to ask.
I take a breath and explain “I haven’t touched it since stabbing Hashiro with it. It feels…off using it for food now.”
“Ah, yes I understand.”
“I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She rubs the back of her neck apologetically “I just wish it weren’t stuck in a drawer. It’s a good knife.
“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She smiles at me as she thinks “Maybe we can find a nice place to display it? As a sort of tribute to yaye. But only if you want that of course.” She quickly adds.
That’s a really good idea “I bet Elizabeth wouldn’t mind it getting a place in the parlour. I can ask.” 
She smiles “I’d like that.” Her arms wrap around my waist “I miss him you know.”
“So do I.”

I think I missed cooking with someone by my side.
Himowa is in no way comparable to Yobu, for one Yobu would never try washing sugar.
But having someone to talk to, or even listening to someone else chopping nuts while you work on a dough feels nice and familiar.
It keeps me in the present and keeps my brain from wandering off in odd directions.
And about two hours later we have a batch of sweet crispy nut crackers that once cooled will be a wonderful compliment to mango.
“And now?” Himowa asks.
“Now we wait for them to cool.”
She huffs “boring.”
“We can take a break and continue after dinner. All we’ll need to do then is wrap them so they don’t stick to your bag.”
“All right.”
“I’ll make tea.”

With the gift practically done and Himowa and I back on speaking terms I feel like things are finally becoming normal.
Himowa drops down into the sofa and then immediately bounces off it again.
“Hey, what’s this?” she asks pulling a box from underneath the swirly coffee table. 
I shrug “No idea, I think that has always been there.” Though I never wondered what it was.
“Xaitu, it’s a board game.”
“Really?” I over to her and sit down on the sofa, craning over her shoulder as opens up the box.
The contents are…complicated. There are tokens and cards and something that looks like a battlefield. 
“I think each player has their own army? And they deal cards against one another?” Himowa mutters as she reads the rules.
“Can I see?”
“Or I can just explain the rules if you like.”
“Dana!” Himowa exclaims in shock and I can’t help the creeping suspicion we may have been snooping somewhere we shouldn’t have without permission.
Dana sits down next to us “It’s a war simulation. Testing the skill of the generals in dispatching troops and resources.”
“How does it work?” Hiowa asks.
“You start by picking an objective, and then try to build the best armies for the job…”
We follow her leads as she explains the rules, grabbing tokens when needed, playing cards and completing a round with an open hand just for practice.
“I do wonder what Alice needs a war game for if she’s so keen on peace.” 
The two women look at me puzzled. It takes me a moment to realise my thought has left my lips and they’re probably waiting for a follow-up on that thought.
“Actually it’s my game,” Dana admits. “I brought it back when Alice and I flew to Cygne together and she liked to play it so I left it here in hopes she got to play it with her friends someday.”
Himowa’s eyes grow big “You and Alice went to Cygne together?”
“Yes, briefly.”
“What was it like?” Himowa asks with sparkling eyes.
Dana elaborates while shuffling the cards “Cygne? It’s a very pompous place, with old money, old traditions and dusty architecture made from marble and glass. It’s pretty in a pretentious way and the cities exude an air of history but I wouldn’t want to live there.” 
“I wonder if we’ll go there too one day.” 
Dana shrugs, we already passed it on the way, I think if Elizabeth wanted to land she’d have done so.”
I don’t really get the appeal of ‘pretentious old architecture’ but Himowa looks bummed out so I say “Well how about we play this game for real then?”
“Right, good idea.”
It’s an interesting game, high on strategy and thinking ahead. Two qualities I lack and therefore I get my ass handed to me over and over again.
To my bafflement it’s Himowa who seems in her element with the game, placing armies just right to make quick work of any battle without wasting resources and I wonder if that’s the ‘restaurant owner to be’ in her.
“Okay so now for your next settlement…where are your other settlements?” she asks almost accusingly.
I throw up my hands in defeat “You killed them all, I lost the game.”
“Already?” She sounds baffled and maybe even disappointed.
“Well, charging in and hoping for the best doesn’t generally make for a good tactic in these kinds of games,” Dana adds with a smile.
“Huh, sorry sweetie.”
“It’s okay, go kick Dana’s ass now.”
“Sure thing.”

After at least a couple round suddenly Dana curses, drops her cards on the table and jumps from the sofa.
“What is it?” Himowa asks but a quick glance out the window answers that question for us.
We’re descending.
“I should have changed shifts with Alice already but I forgot about the time.”
I look at the clock, she’s right, it’s eight in the evening and dusk is settling in.
“Well, it’s been fun,” she says, then hurries out of the room.
The massive machine settles down on the ground. 
I look at Himowa, she shrugs in response.
After a minute or two we can hear Dana’s voice just loud enough for us to hear through the door
“Elizabeth you shouldn’t put words into my mouth, it’s not polite.” She says sternly.
And then Elizabeth just steamrolls over the conversation clear as day.
“But it’s true though, isn’t it? You think I’m some sort of spoiled brat who does as she pleases and doesn’t care about consequences well I do care! Because by taking that stupid wallet I lost your respect and I’m not getting that back.” She sniffs and lets out a sob.
“You didn’t lose my respect.”
“Because I never had it?”
“Elizabeth stop that.”
“Do you want to know what I really think?” There’s a pause.
“I think taking the wallet was a mistake. I think you shouldn’t have tried to fix everything by yourself. You have friends Elizabeth. Not just Hui and Himowa but me, Xjaa, Sehe. You could have asked any of us for help and we would have given it.”
“Yes?” Dana challenges.
There’s a long silence as everyone holds their breath.
“You’re right.”
“We can send the wallet back once we’re in Venusia. I’m not sure your father will forgive you but it’s a start.”
“Now do you want me to head to the cockpit so we can lift off again, or do you want to call this evening, the others found xaito and I taught them how to play it so…
Game night?

The door opens. 
Himowa quickly steps back and hugs Elizabeth. 
She looks a bit stunned, but then she hugs back.
Dries her tears.
And sits down with us.
“We found out that Himowa is good at this game,” I tell her.
“Really?” Elizabeth asks as a smile breaks free on her face.
“So now we’re all curious to find out who’d win,” Dana adds.
We call it quits on our last game and Dana deals the cards again.
I lose first, as is steadily becoming a tradition. 
Looks like Elizabeth and Himowa are working together against Dana next. 
This is gonna be good.
But I get up for now.
“Where are you going?”
“I am going to grab some snacks, we haven’t eaten since midday and I’m not cooking when I could be watching this instead.
Himowa chuckles “Fair point.”
The table gets laden with cut vegetables, dried rice cakes and the leftovers I was planning on using for today’s dinner.
It looks like Dana’s in trouble now, with only two armies left and surrounded on both sides.
But she doesn’t really seem to mind.
She lays down three cards. 
Elizabeth groans.
Himowa pulls up an eyebrow in confusion.
“We each need to lay off a card for each army we have on the board. Then count the cards in our discard pile and take that much damage to our troops.”
“Wait, that’s a thing?” Himowa asks flabbergasted.
“Yup, it says so right here.”
Himowa counts her armies “I have thirteen of them…that’s more than my hand.”
“Then you have to push cards from your drawing deck to your discard deck without looking at them and then grab new cards next turn,” Dana explains.
“Oh that’s deviously clever and how dare you,” Himowa grumbles shortly but I can see her trying to memorise the combination for later.
In the next round, Dana is out of the game, but Himowa is a sitting duck so Elizabeth takes a swing and wipes out half of Himowa’s armies.
“Guess my beginner’s luck ran out,” Himowa announces.
“I don’t think that was luck, I think you’re remarkably good at this,” Elizabeth admits.
“Thank you, now say goodbye to your supply lines ’cause I’m not going down without a fight.”
“I wouldn’t expect any different.
Elizabeth wins in the end, but the game lasts a lot longer than anyone expected. 
And it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Hours later I’m kneeling on the marble floor again.
I’m not even surprised at this point. 
This scene.
This dream.
I’ve seen it so many times before.
Yet it feels different this time.
For the first time, I know it’s a dream.
The panic that grabbed me by the throat, the misery it doesn’t feel like my misery.
I’m not here.
I’m in my bed.
Laying next to my wonderful girlfriend.
Hashiro sneers but it looks awkward, almost comical.
I get up and the dragon band that constricts around my arms gets torn away by an angry sword.
A sword wielded by a beautiful butterfly.
As the blood flows back into the limb it hurts, but it’s not my pain.
I look back at my badass girlfriend and smile. 
She waves sweetly, then readies her sword to dispose of my brother.
I hold up my hand, and tell her “there’s no need.”
She looks at me incredulously “Hui he has to die-”
“No, he doesn’t. Because he’s already dead.” I walk up to her and kiss her “Thank you Himowa, I got it from here.”
“All right, just call if you need me.” Her smile radiates as she shatters into a cloud of blue butterflies. 
I watch them fly off for a bit. 
Then turn to Hashiro’s grinning mug.
“I killed you, I stabbed you in the chest back in Choumuri.” The words, feel powerful. And with that power a red stain starts to spread from his chest, radiating outward like a blossoming flower.
He shakes his head, and refuses to look down “You’re lying.” He says but there’s at the edge of his words, a sliver of doubt.
A hint of fear.
Invisible hands constrict around my neck as if the dream is trying to fight back.
But this is a dream. 
It’s not real.
I breathe in, deeply, smugly, ignoring the tight pain.
Hashiro’s eyes grow wide, panic streaks across his face.
I point my fingers into the shape of a gun and tell him “I shot you in the face Hashiro, and I don’t regret it.”
“Wait Hui you’re!”
He slumps down from his throne, a stump where his head should be.  
I chuckle dryly. 
It was that easy.
Was it always that easy?
Did I just beat my nightmare?
I turn around and find myself looking down the barrel of a gun. Takeyo’s face is red with rage and streaked with tears.
“You killed Hashiro how could you!?”
I huff at this, cross my arms and tell him “Hashiro is not a man worth fighting for.” Then I take a breath and step towards him.
“Stop it! I’ll shoot you I-” he does a terrible job at hiding his fear. 
I hug him, his protests stuck in his throat as I tell him “I forgive you.”
“About the gun, about the whole cat and mouse bullshit.” I chuckle “Our childhood was pretty messed up you know. But now that Hashiro is dead, he cannot hurt you anymore. I hope you do something with that opportunity.”
Beneath my arms, Takeyo shivers and shakes before dissolving into light. 
Hundred of them.
Tiny pinpricks of light that drift off into the dark.
And then I’m alone.
But I’m not alone.
I’m in the parlour of the Royal Griffin playing xaitu. The ladies are evenly matched in strength while I watch on the sidelines, armies destroyed after only a handful of rounds.
Smiling blissfully as I cheer everybody on.
There’s a knock on the door.
My hand shoots for my gun but then just before my fingers touch that cold stone handle I think better of it.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell them.
Then walk to the door.
Opening it up I spot a familiar old man.
“Hello, Hui.”
“Yobu.” I hug him, my heart heavy and light at the same time. 
“I told you to call me yaye.”
“Right, yaye.” There are tears in my eyes, happy tears mixed with tears of melancholy.
“Are you okay?” he asks as he puts a gentle hand on my chin and wipes away a tear.
It’s because you’re dead.
I want to tell him but…
I keep it to myself instead.
“It’s fine, just happy to see you. Do you want to play a game of xaitu?”
“Well you’ll have to teach me the rules but sure.” He tells me eyes sliding over the place with every step. “You know this place is very pretty.”
“Yes…yes it is.”

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