Chapter eighteen: The confession
With a loud whack he slaps the bundle of money onto the table, my shoulders jump at the sound.
“Where did you get this?” The old man demands, his voice is cold, accusatory.
This went very different from what I expected.
We’re sitting in the back, the three of us.
It’s evening but no one has come in to eat yet.
A slow night, the type of night that sets everyone on edge because no money’s getting made.
In hindsight, it was a stupid idea to give it now, I thought it’d ease their worries. But now the old man is blocking the door and refusing to let me get back to work until I explain where I got such a large sum of money at such short notice.
So I tell him.
“I got a friend. And I told her about the financial struggles the restaurant was having. And she wanted to help but she didn’t have any ready money. So we sold one of her hairpins and she let me keep the money earned from that to give to you.”
Yobu grunts painfully “Don’t try to treat me like a fool Hui.” He sounds like it’s taking him a lot of effort to stay calm “I want the truth and I want it now.”
“But that is the truth!”
“We both know it’s not!” He shouts then rubs the bridge of his nose in frustration. “I told you I could handle this. I don’t want you resorting to stealing to help me out! You think ‘the end justifies the means’ well it doesn’t! Stealing is stealing and it’s wrong and either you come clean about it now or-”
“Don’t call me a thief! I didn’t steal anything!”
“You actually expect me to believe someone paid two hundred fifty chui for a hairpin!?” His voice flares up like a raging fire and I can feel the breath getting stuck in my throat.
It’s…eight hundred actually but I don’t feel much for telling him about the deal I struck with Failao right now if he’s already this livid.
I turn to Himowa, she’s sitting in the corner eyes cast down to the floor. She hasn’t spoken a single word since I’ve given Yobu the money. “You believe me right!?”
Her eyes remain downcast as she says the words in a small voice “I…I want to.”
“Don’t try to drag her into your wild tales, Hui! that’s not fair?”
I hold up my hands in a calming gesture “Look, I don’t understand how a pin can be worth that much either but it was really old and it looked like a bird and had white shells in it and- and….” I throw up my hands in frustration “I can’t explain okay!? Some people are just crazy and rich and pay insane amounts for stupid hairpins!”
“So this ‘friend’ sold something incredibly valuable just to help you?”
“No, she did it to help you.”
“And in exchange for this sum of money, she expects what exactly?”
“Nothing! she just wanted to help.”
“Really!? Then who is this mysterious helper?”
“Elizabeth Chattoway, look I know this all sounds far fetched but why would I lie to you?”
“I don’t know but I find it very hard to believe you so much as know Elizabeth Chattoway let alone get free money from her!” The old man scoffs.
“Is it that hard to believe I actually have a life beyond this restaurant, old man!?”
“It is when you make it sound like this!” He sits down with a thud and rests his head on his hands “I kept you on because I trusted you to be a good kid with a good heart. I put even my business, my dreams on the line for you because I thought it was unfair to fire you for something you had no control over.
Now I don’t know how you got this, whether you borrowed it from the Kashuya or stole it or robbed a bank but I don’t want it.” He shoves the bundle in my direction.
I can feel my neck redden with rage “You think I’d take money from the Kashuya just so you can pay it back to them. Do you think I’m stupid!?”
“You know what Hui, I don’t know what to think anymore! But I know I can’t trust you. And without trust, there’s no working together. So just… take the money and get out.”
“You’re firing me?” my voice is small, uncertain. My fight instantly extinguished.
He crosses his arms, averts his eyes then says “Yes.”
This is ridiculous!
I grunt, thrust the money back into my pocket and storm out with a “Fine! I’ll show you!”
If it’s proof they want, I’ll give them proof!
The whole way to the locked city I’m fuming.
It’s not like I don’t get the story is hard to believe…but they should at least believe me right? They should know I’d never do anything criminal!
And yet here I am, striding my way back to streets filled with the reds and golds of copper lanterns that are carved with the most beautiful scenes.
As I collect my partner in crime.
Now last time I had Elizabeth with me to let me in. A fact that hadn’t really reached me until the huge gates come into view, heavy and very much locked.
The guard on the right carries a sword, the one on the left wears a holster on his sash.
I’ve seen Himowa do her sword dance, I’ll take my chances with the gun.
“Go away kid, I have no coins to spare.”
“My name is Hui Go, I need to speak to Elizabeth Chattoway. I’m her friend.”
The man looks at me with a snarl on his face “Sure you are, and I’m her dad.”
The other guard lets out a short chuckle at this but I have no intention of being the butt of the joke.
“You don’t have to let me in, just send a messenger. Tell her I need to speak to her now and it’s an emergency.”
“Look kid if you want to send a messenger in you’re paying.”
“Sure.” I take the bundle of silver sticks from my pocket and very deliberately count out the amount “there you go.”
The man looks at the rest I put it back in my pocket, then takes the money from my hand and says “Oh. All right then.”
I sit outside the gate for twenty minutes until Elizabeth comes running up. Her face is flustered from exertion and her coat hangs awkwardly from her shoulder in a state of half put-on-ness.
“What happened?” She asks while gasping for air.
“I’m taking you out to dinner.”
Elizabeth looks at me with a bewildered look. Then composes herself and says “I see, okay, Uhm, I’ll have to ask permission from my father, of course, and maybe get a chaperon.”
“There’s no time, can’t you just send the messenger back?”
“I could…he won’t like it, but I could.”
“Great then it’s settled.”
Elizabeth rolls her eyes but nevertheless, she’s smiling as she pays the messenger and gives him the instructions.
As he rushes back in, I grab the girl’s hand saying “Let’s go.”
“You know I didn’t know having a friend would get me in trouble this quickly.”
“Honestly, neither did I.”
We rush back to the shop and on the way, people stare and point and whisper.
“They’re not even trying to hide it.” I scowl.
“It’s not that big a deal you grow accustomed to it.” Elizabeth shrugs.
“I don’t want to ‘grow accustomed’ to it I want them to stop!” my sentence ends in a shout and immediately everyone is minding their own business.
Elizabeth smiles but doesn’t address it as she asks “which direction now?”
We slow down I look around “Follow your nose to the smell of cooked duck.”
“Very well.” She tries to smell the air “That would be that way?” she asks tentatively.
“Exactly.” The girl’s face lights up, she picks up her step and almost walks straight past it in the process.
“We’re here,” I announce gesturing at the plain-looking door.
“That’s the place, let’s go, the others can’t wait to see you.”
I shove the door open I’m not surprised to see no one in the restaurant portion. I yell a quick “Hello! I’m back!”
Yobu comes forth from the back, rage doused by tears that have left their marks on the man’s wrinkly face “Hui. I-” His voice is soft, then his eyes fall onto my companion and double in size.
“Yobu, this is Elizabeth Chattoway, Elizabeth this is Yobu, the owner of the restaurant.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Elizabeth says as she bows deeply to the man.
Yobu stares for a second or two, dumbstruck before trying to bow even deeper in return stammering “The pleasure is all mine Miss Chattoway.”
I pull a smirk onto my face “Yobu doesn’t want to believe the story of how I got the money.”
“What by selling the hairpin?”
“Oh! I’m so sorry of course that must sound strange coming from nowhere!” Elizabeth exclaims bowing again “Hui wanted to keep it a secret in case the sale didn’t go well.”
“I see I…” He turns to me “How?”
“Long story. Can it wait?”
“Of course.” He sighs a sigh of relief. Then pulls his face into a customer worthy smile and says “Please come in, are you hungry?”
“Well, Hui did promise to take me out to dinner.”
“Of course, of course.” Yobu leads us to a table and as Elizabeth is taking off her coat Yobu whispers to me “I’m so sorry.”
“I know, here.” I hand him the money again, he takes it “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a guest to accompany for dinner.”
I sit down with Elizabeth and Himowa hands us our menus before quickly disappearing into the kitchen again.
“Thank…oh,” Elizabeth says upon seeing Himowa has already left but then recovers herself by looking over the options. “This all looks very…good?”
“You’ve never eaten local food before, have you?”
“Only street food and only sweets.” She admits awkwardly.
I chuckle, “All right, just point to a dish I’ll explain.”
“How about this one?”
“Sounds good, and this?”
“Braised pork belly.”
“What are you having?”
“I haven’t actually thought about it yet…maybe a bit of everything? We already prepared a load of food in the kitchen and no one to eat it so might as well.”
“Sounds good to me!”
Twenty minutes later the table is crowded with plates and bowls.
“It’s delightful. Yobu is an amazing cook!” Elizabeth chirps happily as she pulls more food onto her plate. “This sauce is amazing, oh wait my mouth is on fire, my mouth is on fire!” She exclaims snatching the water from the table and taking a gulp.
I chuckle, I’ve come to think of Elizabeth as two people really, the stately lady who’s the daughter of governor Chattoway and the curious kid who reads mystery novels and takes shooting lessons behind her father’s back.
I smile at her enthusiasm having never seen anyone this excited over trying new things.
But a hint of blue passing the table tears me from my train of thought as I worry.
Something’s wrong with Himowa.
She doesn’t stay to chat or even so much as smile at Elizabeth. And when Himowa doesn’t smile at a customer that means something is very, very wrong.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell her, she signals okay as she’s still gulping down water. I smile, get up and walk to the back.
Himowa is standing in the storage cupboard, list in her hand, grabbing supplies for the kitchen.
I stand beside her, worry in my voice as I ask her “What’s wrong?”
Himowa huffs “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re not smiling.”
“What?” She turns at me, her eyes annoyed “How is that an accusation!?”
“You smile at the foulest of scum but you won’t smile for Elizabeth.”
Her shoulders are tense, she averts her gaze…stays silent.
“Is this because of the governor thing? Cause I promise Elizabeth is nothing like her dad it’s-”
“What!? No! You really think that’s the problem!?” She grunts “Look, I’m fine, just leave me alone.”
Normally I would, normally I don’t press the matter. If people wanna tell me things they can do so themselves but now…that just feels wrong.
“Look I don’t know what’s wrong, but I can’t enjoy a nice evening if I know you’re here sulking.”
“Himowa please tell me what’s wrong.”
She slaps the notebook down onto the shelf “You really want to know?” There’s a challenge to her voice but I’m not afraid.
“She stole you away from me right under my nose! And you didn’t even tell me you knew her. And now I feel like a fool for liking you because I could never even try to compete with that- her and…and…” her shoulders start to tremble and her voice starts to quiver and slowly the realization starts to trickle in.
“Elizabeth is just a friend.” I try to assure her.
“Oh sure, a friend who just gives you lots of money in secret.”
“Granted I didn’t know she was going to do that when I told her about the restaurant. But I think she’s been kind of jumping at the chance to be useful, and I’m really grateful for that. But again we’re really just friends. I feel normal around her.”
“You do?” She asks timidly.
I nod “I do.”
“So, how do you feel around me?”
“Around you, I feel all nervous and giddy and I don’t quite know why but it could be a crush I’m not sure because I never felt like it before.”
And then I hug her. It seems like the right thing to do and she hugs me back and nuzzles her face in my neck and her breath trembles and I just want to stay like this for a while.
After Himowa has calmed down she looks at me and chuckles “Well, this is slightly awkward…Elizabeth is still in the restaurant,”
“It’s fine, she’ll understand.”
“Can you smile now?”
Her face pulls into the goofiest grin I’ve ever seen. A whole new smile I’ve never seen before “You bet.”
“After dinner, I’m going to bring her home, do you want me to come back here after that.”
“I’d like that yes.”
She smiles, and I smile. I kiss her cheek, she kisses my lips.
It feels nice.
And then I head back into the restaurant.
I see Yobu talking to Elizabeth, the moment I arrive they look at me, smile and whatever they were talking about I’ll never get to know because Yobu nods respectfully and zips back into the kitchen.
“Hey Hui, are you okay?”
“Yes, very much so. Something really nice happened just now.”
“Really?” there’s a mischievous edge to her voice “Do tell.”
So I do.
“She thought you and I were a couple?” she asks amazed.
Elizabeth laughs heartily “That’s very unlikely.”
I cock an eyebrow at her “Am I that far beneath your standard?” I ask in a teasing voice.
“No, but you are entirely the wrong gender, I like women exclusively.”
“Shocked?” She asks.
“Surprised I guess?”
“This day turned out quite the surprise for everyone didn’t it?”
“Indeed it has. “
“Speaking off which did you know these are sweet and zesty at the same time!? How did they even do that.”
“I can tell you, I made the sauce.”
“Yeah, it’s easy…”
My stomach is feeling heavy with food and light with happiness as I walk Elizabeth back home.
The weather is mild, Elizabeth has her coat draped over her arms, I just left mine at the restaurant.
The lanterns swoop gently back and forth in the soft breeze.
Amidst the conversations and playing of the people around me, I detect a hint of music growing stronger as we make our way to the rich part of town.
I wonder if there are things I should say, a conversation I should be making right now?
I dragged her all the way out here, I should probably entertain her on the way back right?
But then I look beside me and Elizabeth seems happy, contented, just hugging the coat close to her chest, looking up to the cloud-filled sky.
And so we walk together, a shared moment of silence and it feels nice.
And as we walk the music swells until the silence is broken by Elizabeth announcing. “Well I guess, this is my stop.” Pointing at the giant gates.
“Indeed…I hope you enjoyed yourself.”
“I had a wonderful time. Thank you for inviting me.” She hugs me, I hug back. It’s nice, I never would have guessed I’d get friends like her.
Then she lets go again, pushes a stray lock of golden hair from her face and skips to the gate “Now go get that girl. She seems really nice.”
I nod “She’s the absolute nicest.” I yell after her, before heading back to the restaurant with a crazy wide smile on my face.
Where Himowa, my girlfriend, is waiting for me.